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Fair Use and Parody in Fiction

Posted November 24, 2020
Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

In celebration of National Novel Writing month, Authors Alliance is pleased to bring you resources and information about copyright issues of note for fiction authors. In this post, we will go over fair use as it applies to fiction writing. Last week, we discussed copyright protection for literary characters, and the preceding week, explored exceptions to copyright that are relevant to fiction authors.

One of the exceptions to copyright we talk about most often at Authors Alliance is fair use. Fair use is a doctrine that allows the use of copyrighted works without permission in certain circumstances, and is included in the Copyright Act. Authors Alliance offers a full-length guide to fair use for nonfiction authors, as well as a dedicated resource page designed to help authors navigate fair use issues. Within fiction, fair use comes up in different contexts than we normally see in nonfiction, as many of the core purposes of fair use—news reporting, research, and nonprofit educational uses—do not fit neatly within the ambit of commercial fiction. For this reason, fair use in fiction is often discussed in terms of parody. Parody— first discussed as a fair use by the Supreme Court in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music—works as a form of comment and criticism, core purposes of fair use. In the aforementioned case, the Court stated that parody had to “mimic an original to make its point.” While mimicking an original work is typically indicative of the kind of copying that can be infringement, in the context of parody, this similarity is essential for the parody to be successful. The Campbell Court defined a parody as a “literary or artistic work that imitates the characteristic style of an author or a work for comic effect or ridicule,” a definition which courts have more or less applied since. 

Suntrust Bank v. Houghton Mifflin 

The seminal court case for parody fair use in fiction is Suntrust Bank v. Houghton Mifflin, in which the estate of Margaret Mitchell, author of the perennial bestseller, Gone With the Wind, sued an author who had borrowed elements of the story for copyright infringement. The case concerned a book written by author Alice Randall entitled The Wind Done Gone, which Randall stated was “a critique of [Gone With the Wind]’s depiction of slavery and the Civil–War era American South.” The Wind Done Gone subverted many of the racial stereotypes in Mitchell’s novel, turning a story of a wealthy white family living on a plantation in Georgia into one which “flips [Mitchell’s] traditional race roles” and criticizes the racist tones in Mitchell’s prose by foregrounding complex and well-developed Black characters. 

The Wind Done Gone incorporates fifteen separate characters from Gone With the Wind into its story, as well as several distinct elements of the plot, “such as the scenes in which Scarlett kills a Union soldier and the scene in which Rhett stays in the room with his dead daughter Bonnie, burning candles.” Yet the court relied on the Campbell decision to find that Randall’s use of Mitchell’s work was a fair one—it was necessary to directly evoke the work in order to comment critically on it in a way that would be clear to readers. 

Dr. Seuss v. Penguin Books

Two other cases involving alleged parodies of works by Dr. Seuss illustrate the nuances of parody fair use a bit further. In Dr. Seuss v. Penguin Books, the estate of Theodor Geisel (the author of the Dr. Seuss Books) sued Penguin Books for its publication of an allegedly infringing work. The Cat NOT in the Hat! A Parody by Dr. Juice was “a rhyming summary of highlights from the O.J. Simpson double murder trial” which evoked the style of Seuss’s work. Penguin argued that the work was a parody of The Cat in the Hat and thus a fair use. The Cat NOT in the Hat! included language telling the O.J. Simpson trial story in the style of Seuss, such as “One Knife? / Two Knife? / Red Knife / Dead Wife” and “[I]f the Cat didn’t do it / Then Who? Then Who?” Yet evoking Seuss’s style was not enough to make the work a parody—the court emphasized that “[a]lthough The Cat NOT in the Hat! does broadly mimic Dr. Seuss’ characteristic style, it does not hold his style up to ridicule.” Unlike The Wind Done Gone, The Cat NOT in the Hat! did not comment on the original work, but merely borrowed its style to achieve different aims. For this reason, the court found that the work was not a parody, and that the author’s use of Seuss’s characters and style was not a fair one. 

Lombardo v. Dr. Seuss 

In Lombardo v. Dr. Seuss, the Geisel estate once again sued an author that had borrowed from Dr. Seuss’s work to create her own. In this case (which we have written about before in the context of fair use analysis), the allegedly infringing work was a play called Who’s Holiday, which “makes use of the characters, plot, and setting of the Dr. Seuss book, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! . . . to make fun of it and to criticize its qualities.” Who’s Holiday features the main character in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Cindy-Lou, as a 45-year old woman who has fallen on hard times. Throughout the play, Cindy Lou “drinks hard alcohol, abuses prescription pills, and smokes a substance she identifies as ‘Who Hash,’” while speaking in rhyming couplets which evoke Seuss’s style. Unlike the Penguin Books case, Who’s Holiday did in fact criticize How the Grinch Stole Christmas!. Like The Wind Done Gone, it commented on the wholesome tone of the original work by juxtaposing it with crass, adult language and themes. Who’s Holiday “subverts the expectations of the Seussian genre” and making it appear “ridiculous,” functioning as an effective parody well within the bounds of fair use. 

Copyright Office Studies Effect of Sovereign Immunity for Copyright

Posted October 28, 2020
Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Last week, the Copyright Office closed the comment period for its ongoing study on sovereign immunity. Sovereign immunity is a doctrine that makes states and state entities immune from lawsuits under federal law in some cases. Congress sought to eliminate sovereign immunity in the copyright context in a 1990 federal law, but a recent decision by the Supreme Court has overturned the law. Now, the Copyright Office is conducting a study to determine whether copyright infringement by state entities is an ongoing problem warranting a new legislative remedy. It solicited feedback from the public in June. 

Authors Alliance has been closely monitoring the comments submitted to the Copyright Office—48 in total. Some comments from rights holders and trade associations alleged that infringement by state entities had occurred in multiple instances, but others argued that the evidence offered did not rise to the level of widespread, intentional infringement which would warrant a new legislative solution.

State Sovereign Immunity

State sovereign immunity immunizes states and state entities—like state government agencies, public hospitals, and state universities—from lawsuits under federal law without their consent, with roots in the Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But state sovereign immunity is not absolute, and can be modified or eliminated in some contexts. In 1990, Congress passed the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act (“CRCA”), which sought to eliminate state sovereign immunity with regards to copyright claims, known as abrogation, under the authority of the Intellectual Property Clause of the Constitution.  

In 1999, a Supreme Court case, Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Educational Expense Board v. College Savings Bank, found invalid an attempt to abrogate state sovereign immunity under the Intellectual Property Clause in the patent context. For twenty years, without further word from Congress or the Supreme Court on the matter, the law was left in a state of uncertainty.

Recent Background: Allen v. Cooper

Sovereign immunity within copyright was recently brought to the fore in the copyright community with a Supreme Court case during last year’s term, Allen v. Cooper. The case concerned the state of North Carolina’s use of copyrighted images of a pirate ship found off the coast without permission from the photographer rights holder. 

In the case, following the logic of Florida Prepaid, the Court held that Congress lacked the authority to abrogate sovereign immunity under the Intellectual Property Clause, making the attempt to do so in the CRCA invalid. The Court also noted that Congress could have abrogated state sovereign immunity with regards to copyright claims under its 14th Amendment powers, but that the way it did so with the passage of the CRCA did not meet the requirements of its 14th Amendment powers. Under the 14th Amendment, Congress must enact legislative solutions that are “congruent and proportional” to the problems it seeks to address. The Court held that the record before Congress did not show the widespread, intentional infringement which would justify the total abrogation of sovereign immunity for copyright claims in the CRCA. 

Responding to the Court’s conclusion and a call from Congress to investigate the matter, the Copyright Office issued a “notice of inquiry” in June 2020, announcing a study that seeks to “evaluate the degree to which copyright owners are experiencing infringement by state entities” and the extent to which these infringements are “based on intentional or reckless conduct.” The Copyright Office also asked whether other remedies available to rights holders under state law were adequate to address the problem of infringement by state entities.

Comments from the Public

The comments—both the initial round and the reply comments—fell into two categories: those that argued that infringement by state entities is widespread and hurts rights holders and creators using examples of these entities asserting sovereign immunity, and those that argue that there is no evidence of widespread infringement, but only anecdotal evidence of alleged infringement. Commenters alleged state infringement in the context of photographs, songs, software, and, to a much lesser extent, literary texts. 

With regards to authors of written works specifically, evidence of infringement by state entities was sparse. One rights holder comment argued that several university presses had infringed her copyrights in putting together a book of interviews, but reply comments in favor of sovereign immunity pointed out that fair use and unclear copyright ownership in interviews undercut this claim. The Association of University Presses, for its part, added that academic books do not bear out such a pattern of infringement, and suggested the Copyright Office “look elsewhere” in attempting to develop its record. 

Anti-Sovereign Immunity

The Copyright Alliance—one of the most prominent voices that submitted a comment arguing against sovereign immunity, which several reply comments endorsed specifically—conducted a survey of its members to offer as evidence to the Copyright Office. The survey found that some members believed their works had been infringed by a state entity. It supplemented its survey results with a discussion of a high-profile settlement involving unauthorized uses of news articles on the website for CalPERS, the California state pension fund, over an eight-year period. In that case, the state agency allegedly posted full copies of news articles in a newsletter to employees and a public website without permission, ultimately removing the content and settling. Other commenters, such as the News Media Alliance, also addressed the CalPERS settlement. 

Trade organizations representing songwriters and photographers as well as a few individual companies and creators also made comments alleging that infringement by state entities is common based on their experiences extracting licensing fees from college radio stations and obtaining remedies when a state entity uses a photograph in advertising without the rights holder’s permission. One such company, Pixsy, attempted to combine statistics about uses of images by post-secondary institutions with an estimate of what percentage of uses of images online were unauthorized to support an argument that sovereign immunity was depriving its clients of millions of dollars in licensing fees. Similarly, SoundExchange, a digital licensing firm for music, examined the royalties it received from college radio stations and concluded that these were lower than expected due to public institutions’ reliance on sovereign immunity. Several anti-sovereign immunity comments also argued that state entities themselves profit off the licensing of their intellectual property, making sovereign immunity unfair. 

Pro-Sovereign Immunity

On the opposite side of the argument were state universities, their libraries, and organizations representing those entities. Comments in favor of maintaining sovereign immunity emphasized that there is no evidence that infringement is intentional and widespread, and suggested that the major alternative remedy available—an injunction requiring the infringing content be removed—is adequate in most circumstances. Many research librarians stated that in their experience aiding university employees with copyright questions, very few rights holder complaints were brought to their attention. 

A joint reply comment from the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities sought to identify weaknesses in the empirical studies undertaken by the Copyright Alliance and SoundExchange: neither investigation accounted for fair use or the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on university practices in the early months of 2020, and the Copyright Alliance study relied on its members subjective beliefs that their copyrights had been infringed by state entities. 

In its reply comment, the University of Michigan Library pointed out that the Copyright Office’s call for comments was directed at rights holders, but many of the comments received focused on state universities and state libraries, many of whom were not given an opportunity to chime in. The Association of University Presses submitted a reply comment along similar lines. Emphasizing that scholarship can be hampered by overreaching copyright claims and that state entities cannot afford “the expensive hurdle of nuisance claims,” the Association argued that the Copyright Office should “look elsewhere” for evidence of widespread, intentional infringement than state run universities and libraries. It also noted that the comments against sovereign immunity failed to take fair use into account, focusing on perceived infringement without considering whether these uses would be fair. 

Going Forward

The Copyright Office stated in its notice of inquiry that it intends to host one or more public roundtables to seek additional input. Authors Alliance will be monitoring these roundtables and any other forthcoming policymaking activities regarding the abrogating of sovereign immunity going forward, and we will continue to update members and readers as new developments emerge.

Fair Use and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act

Authors Alliance is grateful to Angel Antkers & Susan Miller, Student Attorneys, University of Colorado Samuelson-Glushko Technology Law & Policy Clinic, for contributing the following guest post to our series celebrating Fair Use Week 2018.

The fair use doctrine allows the unlicensed, unpermissioned use of a copyrighted work in certain situations. It functions, in part, to safeguard First Amendment interests in freedom of speech. But as the world moves toward more digital authorship and online content, fair use is encountering various obstacles.

In 1998, Congress enacted the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (the “DMCA”), which includes a provision, Section 1201, that makes it illegal to circumvent technological protection measures (like digital rights management, or “DRM”). Section 1201 makes it incredibly difficult for authors to make fair use of many digital works because breaking the DRM may be illegal, whether or not the use is fair. For example, if an author were to create an e-book that commented on a video clip from another work, the author might not be able to rely on fair use to incorporate a copy of the DRM-protected video clip in his or her work.

As a result, Section 1201 creates a chilling effect on speech. Authors may fear liability and as a result may choose not to create content in the first place. There is even pending litigation over whether the DMCA procedure itself is a speech licensing regime and unconstitutional as a result.

Some proponents of fair use believe the DMCA gives copyright holders far greater power than before its enactment. In addition to Section 1201, the expression of speech and creativity is also hindered by the DMCA’s notice and takedown provisions. Under Section 512’s notice and takedown provisions, if a copyright owner comes across infringing content online posted by another user, they may submit a notification to the online service provider hosting the content. Upon receiving the notice, the service provider may block access or remove the content in order to benefit from Section 512’s safe harbors for online service providers. Though a DMCA takedown notice may be sent for a valid purpose, other less legitimate reasons could also motivate a takedown notice. For example, if a copyright holder simply dislikes your First Amendment-protected critique of their work, they might send a takedown request. If the online service provider acts on the takedown request, it may limit your ability to speak freely through fair use.

Although some takedown requests may be a valid use of the DMCA’s notice and takedown provisions, abuses of notice and takedown abound. A recent instance of a takedown occurred when a gamer critiqued a video game and the developer initiated a DMCA takedown after a Twitter fight ensued between the gamer and developer. Thus, despite legitimate engagements with fair use, authors and creators alike may face difficulty in the context of the DMCA.

The University of Colorado Samuelson-Glushko Technology Law and Policy Clinic and the University of California Irvine Intellectual Property, Arts, and Technology Clinic have been working with Authors Alliance to help authors exercise their fair use rights under the DMCA. Most recently, we filed an exemption on behalf of authors in the face of the DMCA’s anti-circumvention restrictions. This exemption would allow authors to incorporate multimedia elements from DRM-protected works in fiction e-books. Without such an exemption, authors could face liability even if they were to engage in legitimate fair use under the current DMCA system.

In April of this year, as part of the U.S. Copyright Office’s triennial rulemaking process, the clinics and Authors Alliance will testify before the U.S. Copyright Office in Washington, DC and in Los Angeles in support of fair use under the DMCA. We will provide updates as the 2018 rulemaking process continues.

 

Slides from Waikato Workshop and Lecture

Thanks to all those who were able to attend Mike Wolfe’s workshop and lecture at the University of Waikato on 12 September. Please feel free to download the slides from those presentations linked to below:

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