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Update: Library E-Book Lending Legislation and Partnerships

Posted July 27, 2021
Photo by Perfecto Capucine on Unsplash

It is no secret that Authors Alliance loves libraries, and we support policies that help libraries fulfill their essential role of making knowledge and culture available and accessible to all. In recent months, several states have proposed and in some cases passed legislation that requires publishers to license e-books to libraries under “reasonable terms.” Similarly, bookselling and publishing giant Amazon has taken steps to make its content available to libraries, following years of refusal to license e-books to libraries altogether. In today’s post, we will share some of the details of these exciting developments. 

State Legislation

Over the course of the past year, three state legislatures have introduced legislation that would impose limits on a publisher’s ability to sell e-books to libraries at a high cost. Under the current licensing model, libraries can pay as much as $60 per title for an e-book license, which often have very restrictive terms, whereas consumers can purchase an e-book license for the same title at a fraction of the cost. The first of these bills was passed in Maryland, and the New York state legislature has also recently approved the New York bill. A bill in Rhode Island is currently pending. Additionally, groups in Connecticut, Texas, Virginia, and Washington have reportedly begun advocating for similar legislation. 

Maryland’s Library E-Book Lending Law

Maryland was the first state to enact legislation requiring publishers to offer libraries e-book and digital audiobook licenses on reasonable terms. The Maryland state legislature unanimously passed the bill in March, but before it was approved by the governor, it faced last-minute opposition from the Association of American Publishers (“AAP”), who claimed the bill was unconstitutional. Despite these challenges, Governor Larry Hogan announced that the bill was enacted into law in late May. The law will go into effect in January 2022, and requires publishers who license “electronic literary products” (which may be broader in scope than “e-books”) to the general public to “offer to license the product to public libraries in the State on reasonable terms that would enable public libraries to provide library users with access[.]” It remains to be seen what will constitute “reasonable terms” under the new Maryland law, but the Maryland Library Association has recently issued a statement providing guidance on what might constitute reasonable terms and how these might be developed.

Despite the tough opposition it faced from publishers, the Maryland law has been described by its proponents as “fairly mild.” This is because it does not fundamentally change the e-book licensing scheme employed by publishers, whereby e-books are temporarily licensed to libraries, who remain unable to actually own these digital copies. Instead, the law simply requires publishers to offer e-book licenses to libraries on terms they can afford in order to allow libraries to perform their essential function of serving patrons: readers are not served when libraries cannot afford e-book licenses. This problem took on particular salience during the pandemic, when many readers were unable to access physical books at all. The new Maryland law takes aim at this issue without disrupting the traditional e-book licensing model that publishers are reluctant to abandon. Nonetheless, the AAP has since affirmed its opposition to these legislative efforts, maintaining that the Maryland law and other state legislation like it are inconsistent with federal copyright law.

New York’s Library E-Book Lending Bill

Last month, the New York state legislature passed a bill similar to the Maryland bill. Just as in Maryland, state legislators voted unanimously in favor of the bill’s passage. The New York bill also requires publishers to offer libraries e-book licenses on “reasonable terms” if those e-book licenses are also available for purchase by the public. The New York bill proceeds from the premise that “[p]ublic libraries provide equitable access to information for all.” Because many New Yorkers (like many readers writ large) prefer digital books over physical ones, whether due to print or mobility disabilities or for ease of access, the bill takes aim at “discriminatory practices” such as e-book embargos, whereby libraries must wait months to purchase licenses for new e-books.

The New York bill has not yet been sent to Governor Andrew Cuomo for his signature, but advocates are “cautiously optimistic” that he will sign once it has been sent. The bill must be sent to the governor by the end of the calendar year, and once signed, will take effect after just 19 days. This means that while the New York bill is not yet law, it may well take effect before Maryland’s new law if sent to and signed by Governor Cuomo. 

Rhode Island’s Library E-Book Lending Bill

In Rhode Island, the analogue bill to the Maryland and New York bills was re-introduced in April of this year after a similar bill last legislative session failed to gain momentum. The 2021 bill, which, like the Maryland legislation, includes digital audiobooks, was then recommended for further study by the House Corporations Committee, with no further updates since late April. Former Rhode Island state senator, Mark McKenney, penned an op-ed voicing his support for the bill, pointing out that “libraries lending books to patrons hasn’t put publishers out of business,” and calling out Amazon specifically for its policy of refusing to sell or license e-books it publishes to libraries and schools altogether.

Amazon and the Digital Public Library of America

In December 2020, Amazon announced it was in talks with the Digital Public Library of America (“DPLA”) to make thousands of books it publishes available to public libraries via the DPLA exchange. The long-awaited deal between the organizations was signed in May, and is set to go into effect sometime this summer. The partnership contemplates several different licensing models, including flexible “bundles” of lends and more traditional models involving time limits and restrictions on how many patrons can check out an e-book at a time. Librarians have applauded Amazon for offering the less restrictive “bundle” models, which provide additional flexibility for libraries. Unlike the state library e-book lending legislation, the Amazon-DPLA partnership will offer an alternative to the traditional licensing scheme.

Library advocates are cautiously optimistic about the Amazon-DPLA partnership, but also note that how much it will help libraries will depend on how Amazon prices its e-books for libraries, which is at this point unknown. Unlike the state library e-book lending legislation discussed above, the Amazon deal makes no mention of how library e-book licenses will be priced. Moreover, not all Amazon-published titles will be made available through the partnership—self-published Kindle originals and Audible audiobooks are not included in the program, for example. Another limitation of the Amazon-DPLA partnership is that it requires libraries to participate in the DPLA marketplace, and will make the e-books readable with the SimplyE reading app, an open source e-reading platform developed by the New York Public Library. Many library patrons today access e-books via more popular marketplaces such as OverDrive, and both iBooks and Kindle are much more popular e-reading platforms with which patrons are likely to be more familiar. Yet the Amazon-DPLA partnership is undoubtedly a step in the right direction towards ensuring greater access to books published by Amazon. Moreover, the deal is not exclusive, meaning that Amazon could develop similar partnerships in the future in order to make its e-books even more accessible to library patrons. 

Copyright and American Independence Day

Posted July 6, 2021
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

In today’s post, we will be sharing some facts about copyright law and American Independence Day. While the two might not seem to be closely connected, both the history of the Fourth of July and the ways in which we celebrate today implicate copyright law in some unexpected ways.

Patriotic Public Domain Works: The Declaration of Independence

The Fourth of July celebrates the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, whereupon the American colonies declared themselves to be independent from England. The Declaration of Independence is in the public domain for several reasons. Copyright buffs may recall that works published prior to 1926 are in the public domain, and this principle applies to this historic document. But in fact, the lack of a system of copyright protection in the American colonies at the time of the Declaration’s issuance means that it was probably never protected by U.S. copyright law. The first federal copyright law was not passed until 1790, and did not apply retrospectively, but only to new works of authorship. And today, literary works authored by the federal government are automatically in the public domain. 

The Library of Congress makes scanned copies of early historic documents in the public domain, including the Declaration of Independence, available online. Because they are in the public domain, anyone is free to use these documents in whatever manner they wish—reading them aloud to crowds, translating them into other languages, or printing and distributing copies—without fear of copyright liability.

Patriotic Public Domain Works: “The Star Spangled Banner”

The American national anthem too is a part of the public domain. The lyrics to “The Star Spangled Banner” originate from a poem, “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” written by Francis Scott Key in 1814. The musical composition was taken from an earlier written song—“the Anacreontic Song,” official song of the British gentleman’s club, the Anacreontic Society—which was already in the public domain at the time, having been written in the late 1700s (you can hear a full recording of “The Anacreontic Song” on the Smithsonian’s website). Key’s poem set to this tune was subsequently re-titled “The Star Spangled Banner.” The patriot song remained popular for years, and was officially adopted as the American national anthem in 1931. 

Interestingly, only Key’s lyrics were officially adopted as the national anthem. While “The Anacreontic Song” has remained the unofficial, traditional musical composition for “The Star Spangled Banner,” creators have been empowered to create their own adaptations, which could potentially rise in popularity and usurp the original tune (though this has not happened). These adaptations can also draw heavily from the original tune because it is in the public domain: such adaptations could have been considered derivative works that would infringe the copyright owner’s exclusive rights, were the song protected by copyright. Well-known adaptations of “The Star Spangled Banner,” like Igor Stravinsky’s four arrangements of the song and Jimi Hendrix’s instrumental rendition at Woodstock, may not have been possible without the freedom to adapt that the public domain enables. 

Copyright in Revolutionary America

Prior to the issuance of the Declaration of Independence, when the American colonies remained under British rule, there was no copyright protection in the present-day United States. This is because the British copyright law, the Statute of Anne, did not apply to the American colonies. As a result, creators had little to no control over the dissemination of their works, and were not entitled to royalty payments. However, the largely agrarian nature of the present-day U.S. at the time made copyright protections less of a priority for the colonists and revolutionaries. Over the next 14 years, as the country evolved, the Continental Congress and later the Congress of the Confederation (the legislative body established under the Articles of Confederation) allowed for private copyright acts and state law copyright acts, resulting in inconsistencies across states and limited protection for creators. Finally, the first federal copyright bill was signed into law by George Washington in 1790. This law mirrored the Statute of Anne nearly word for word, though U.S. and U.K. copyright laws have evolved in different ways in the intervening century. 

The Fourth of July Today: Copyright in Fireworks Displays

Across the U.S., many celebrate the Fourth of July with fireworks displays, which can be expressive and creative. But fireworks displays are an example of the kind of creative expression that copyright typically does not protect. This is because of the fixation requirement in American copyright law: for creative expression to receive copyright protection, the Copyright Act requires that it be fixed in a tangible medium of expression. The fixation requirement means an improvised speech which is not recorded or documented in any way cannot protected by copyright, for example. And similarly, fireworks displays are simply too ephemeral and intangible to satisfy the fixation requirement. 

But the story does not end there: photographs or film recordings of fireworks displays are eligible for copyright protection, because those types of expression are fixed—recorded on film or saved on a digital camera. Images or recordings of fireworks displays further possess the “modicum of creativity” necessary for a work to be protected, since the person who captured the image or recording made at least some creative choices in how they captured the display. Additionally, a recent court case found that “command protocols” and the underlying computer codes for the actual launching of fireworks were copyrightable as software, which is a type of literary work eligible for copyright protection. So while the actual display of fireworks—what you may have witnessed this Independence Day—cannot be protected by copyright, fixed images of the fireworks and the computer program that made their display possible can be protected. 

Libraries, COVID-19, and E-Book Lending: One Year Later

Posted March 30, 2021
Photo by aNDy on Unsplash

This is the second in a two post series on how libraries have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, one year after the American Library Association recommended that libraries across the country close. Last week, we discussed the ways in which libraries have supported communities and readers through expansion of traditional services and new initiatives aimed at preservation. 

On March 17, 2020, the American Library Association (“ALA”) recommended that public libraries across the country close in response to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. That same day, publishing conglomerate Macmillan (one of the so-called “Big Five” publishers that dominate much of the trade book market) announced it would end a controversial embargo on sales of e-books to libraries, also stating its intention to temporarily lower prices on some library e-book licenses “to help expand libraries collections in these difficult times.”

One year later, many libraries remain shuttered or have scaled back their hours, services, and capabilities. Yet e-book lending has skyrocketed, as e-books can be checked out by patrons from the safety of their homes. Libraries have adapted to this increased demand in a variety of ways despite limited resources and budgets. By increasing digital offerings with a special emphasis on making e-book lending available to patrons, libraries have pivoted to serve the needs of a community forced by external circumstances to turn to the internet for information, culture, and human connection.  

Library E-Book Lending in the “Before Time”

Prior to the start of the pandemic, a dispute between publishers and libraries on the subjects of e-book pricing and availability to patrons had been quietly simmering. Between 2018 and 2019, four of the Big Five publishers changed licensing terms and raised prices of e-books for libraries. And the bookselling giant Amazon, which has launched its own publishing operations under the name “Amazon Publishing,” has taken an even harsher approach to e-book library lending: it refuses to sell its titles to libraries altogether. In a statement to the Washington Post, a representative from Amazon Publishing stated that it was “not clear to us that current digital library lending models fairly balance the interests of authors and library patrons[.]” 

In general, libraries are able to loan out e-books because they acquire licenses to do so. Typically, a copy cannot be checked out by more than one patron at a time and only for a set number of times (with 26 and 52 checkouts being most common), and the licenses may also be limited duration, typically one to two years. Moreover, libraries pay up to five times more for e-books than consumers do. This custom reflects the fact that a library lends each e-book out multiple times, with multiple end readers rather than the single user who buys an e-book from Amazon or the iBook store. But libraries are typically charged the same price for physical books as are consumers, creating an imbalance in access across the two formats. This imbalance has become all the more salient during the pandemic due to the limitations on access to physical books and the budgetary constraints that are felt around the country. 

By 2018, 90% of American libraries offered digital loans. As e-book library lending increased in popularity, publishers argued that the popularity of library e-book lending led to reduced profits. In 2019, Macmillan revealed that its revenue per library e-book read was down to “two dollars and dropping,” apparently “a small fraction” of what it makes on consumer purchases. Macmillan and other large publishers complained that the “frictionless” nature of e-book lending means that readers can acquire e-books with the same relative ease as purchasing those e-books. But there is reason to believe the fear that library e-book lending hurts e-book sales is ill-founded—in the first 10 months of 2020, when library e-book checkouts began to increase dramatically, the American Association of Publishers reported that e-book sales had increased by over 16% rather than dropping as more readers turned to library e-books. 

Library E-Book Lending During the Pandemic

During the pandemic, library e-book lending increased manifold across the country. In April 2020, the Congressional Research Service reported that demand for e-books (both from libraries and readers who purchased e-books) had increased significantly, and that libraries and organizations were searching for lending models to address this increased demand. OverDrive, the nation’s leading e-book lending platform and maker of the “Libby” library lending app, saw checkouts increase by over 50% during the early months of the pandemic, and many individual library systems similarly saw large increases in e-book checkouts. New library partnerships with hoopla, another leading lending platform, have resulted in a 20% increase in membership for the platform. At the most basic level, this uptick in demand is not difficult to understand: without access to physical library spaces, e-book lending became for many patrons the best option to continue to access works at their local libraries. 

To keep up with the increasing demand for e-book loans and better meet patrons where they are, libraries have adapted their programs and procedures to make e-book checkouts more accessible. Libraries began by investing in more e-book licenses and increasing spending on “digital resources.” As the pandemic progressed, libraries around the country began allowing patrons to apply for and obtain library cards online so that new patrons could access e-book offerings. Library systems have also increased investments in new e-book licensing models, such as the “concurrent use model,” which allow libraries to license a “bundle” of loans to meet high demand that do not expire. This model is particularly attractive for public school students, and it has been used to facilitate access to texts during remote learning. Another lending model that has increased in popularity during the pandemic is the deployment of “skip-the-line” or “lucky” copies of new and popular titles. This system allows patrons to choose to check out an e-book for a shorter checkout window, but to avoid long waitlists that can plague popular titles available for regular check out. And this summer, libraries worked to support patrons grappling with racial injustice following the killing of George Floyd and protests across the country by working with OverDrive to offer extended checkouts for books on anti-racism.

Publishers have also adapted their e-book license terms to be more library- and reader-friendly, recognizing the importance of library lending for the American public. By the end of March 2020, all of the Big Five publishers had announced relaxations of their e-book license terms, reducing prices on e-books for libraries by up to 50% and developing “cost per circulation” catalogues that allowed libraries to pay fees per e-book loan for certain titles rather than requiring an upfront payment for a license of limited duration. But these measures were largely intended to be temporary to help libraries struggling to meet their patrons’ needs during the pandemic, and where library e-book lending will go from here is uncertain.

An Uncertain Future for Library E-Book Lending

While progress has been made towards making knowledge and culture more accessible through relaxing barriers to entry for e-book library lending, it is unclear whether publishers and other intermediaries will return to the state of play prior to the pandemic. 

Recognizing the need for fair and balanced license terms for library e-books, several states have introduced legislation mandating that publishers must offer libraries e-books that are available to retail consumers, and must do so on “reasonable terms.” And, in Maryland, such a bill was recently approved unanimously by the state legislature, and is currently awaiting final approval by the governor. Amazon Publishing, which until recently refused to budge on its ban on selling e-books to libraries, is reportedly in talks with the Digital Public Library of America to make Amazon Publishing titles available to libraries across the country through DPLA’s lending platform. ReadersFirst, a library organization that advocates for library users’ ability to use loaned e-books in the way they use print books, is optimistic that other publishers may follow suit and work to make their e-books more accessible to libraries and their patrons. 

Creation is Not a Closed Book Exam: Developing the Best Practices in Fair Use for Open Educational Resources

Posted March 16, 2021

by Will Cross and Meredith Jacob, originally posted on the Copyright at Harvard Library blog

You can learn a lot from which questions people ask you, and which they don’t. As educators and advocates for building openly-licensed textbooks and other open educational resources (OER), we spend a lot of our time at conferences and workshops talking about how to understand and use Creative Commons licenses. As we’ve done presentations over the past few years, however, we noticed that attendees generally listened politely to our presentation and then spent the entire question and discussion period asking pointed questions about how fair use fits in.

As fair use advocates, we love these questions – what’s more fun than digging into a juicy fair use discussion! But bringing discussions about fair use into the open education community raised a second set of questions from creators and especially gatekeepers, and we needed to give people a way forward that went beyond a quick conference Q&A but still didn’t promise individualized legal advice. Some open educators felt unprepared to analyze fair use in particular contexts. Many felt apprehensive about fair use as a whole, often based on anxieties grounded in copyright folklore left over from the era of Napster and LimeWire. Strikingly, many institutional gatekeepers felt unable to make broad, uniform decisions about whether and how to acknowledge fair use at all. While they recognized that some authors were in fact relying on fair use sub rosa, without any tool for systematically understanding and applying fair use they felt that their options were either “allow anything” or “(pretend to) allow nothing.”

Of course, the reality is that every textbook relies to some extent on fair use. It would be practically impossible to build a textbook – certainly a good textbook – without quoting anyone, critiquing anything, or illustrating ideas with text, images, music, or other materials from the real world. Creating anything, including OER, is not a closed book exam. Good pedagogy explicitly builds on the work that has come before and great pedagogy connects to the real world and the lived experiences of the learners it is meant to engage.

Our job, then, was to understand what type of guidance the community needed in order to find a happy medium between “no fair use allowed” and “anything goes.” Fortunately, we had a great tool for exactly this type of work: the Codes of Best Practice in Fair Use. For two decades, the Codes of Best Practice have proved to be an effective tool for many communities to document the repeated professional situations in which they can and must rely on fair use. The Codes are built on a framework that aligns fair use decision making with both the professional mission of the creators and the predictable legal principles of fair use law. These Codes have worked for such disparate communities as documentary filmmakers, librarians, poets, and dance archivists, just to name a few.  

As when creating past Codes, we began with a series of interviews with stakeholders across the community. These interviews helped us understand where questions about fair use were creating friction for OER creators, where authors were regularly relying on fair use, what parallel concerns such as accessibility and equity demanded attention, and finally where OER creators were getting information, advice, or even hard rules about the copyright decisions they were making. By early 2020 we felt ready to begin the focus groups that are the signature work of creating Best Practice documents. We felt inspired, connected, and ready to go. Nothing could stop us now . . .

Obviously 2020 didn’t go the way anyone expected, and we paused the process to support educators making the rapid move to fully online instruction with a series of webinars on building resilient materials for teaching and learning. This series also began with a question: “can I read aloud to my students in an online classroom?” The answer, of course, is “reading is most definitely allowed!”

Significantly, what we thought would be a brief detour turned out to be a critical reminder for all of our work, especially the Best Practices: “it’s always an emergency for someone.” While the pandemic brought into focus acute questions about rapid shifts in pedagogy and making do with substandard wifi, for many learners those challenges are chronic and exist beside and in the context of systematic injustice, inaccessible design, and deep digital divides. Relying on fair use as a tool to enable access seemed urgently necessary in that moment of crisis. But those needs are no less urgent and fair use is no less essential for students who face perennial challenges based on inequity and inaccessibility. 

As we returned to developing the Code, this core principle continued to animate our work and to resonate deeply in focus group discussions, particularly when we discussed the inadequacy of linking out rather than relying on fair use to reliably incorporate materials. By the late fall we had completed eighteen focus groups and were pleased that our outstanding team of legal reviewers enthusiastically supported the document we facilitated in partnership with the open education community. 

As we celebrate Fair Use Week 2021 we’re excited to share the Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Open Educational Resources. As with all of the Codes, this resource describes an approach to reasoning about the application of fair use to issues both familiar and emergent but does not provide rules of thumb, bright-line rules, or other decision-making shortcuts. Using the Code to develop OER is also not a closed book exam. Instead, it is designed to empower you to bring together a team of educators, librarians, publishing experts, and others to develop resilient, inclusive OER that engages with and reflects the work that has come before and the world that learners are preparing to enter.

You can learn more about what the Code says, how it works, and how it fits into a global body of educational exceptions in this recorded webinar. We’re also developing a series of community-specific events for open educators, librarians, and legal gatekeepers such as offices of general counsel over the coming weeks. We invite you to work with us to develop guidance and models for applying the Code in specific disciplines and communities through workshops and project development. We’re just getting started with the really fun stuff and we know your questions and real world examples will help make this resource even more meaningful and exciting.

Meredith Jacob serves as the Assistant Director for Academic Programs at the Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property (PIJIP) at American University Washington College of Law. Her work includes student outreach and advising, curriculum coordination, and academic research and advocacy. Currently her work also includes research and advocacy focused on open access to federally funded research, flexible limitations and exceptions to copyright, and public interest in international intellectual property. Previously, Meredith worked with state legislators on a variety of intellectual property and regulatory issues affecting pharmaceuticals and the privacy of prescription records.

Will Cross is the Director of the Copyright & Digital Scholarship Center in the NC State University Libraries, an instructor in the UNC SILS, and an OER Research Fellow. Trained as a lawyer and librarian, he guides policy, speaks, and writes on open culture and navigating legal uncertainty. As a course designer and presenter for ACRL, SPARC, and the Open Textbook Network, Will has developed training materials and run workshops across the US and for international audiences from Ontario to Abu Dhabi. Will’s current research focuses on the relationship between copyright and open education. In addition to this project he serves as co-PI and co-developer of the IMLS-funded Library Copyright Institute.

December 2020 Copyright Roundup

Posted January 26, 2021
Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

Last month was a busy one for copyright law (although we cannot fault you if you were distracted by other things going on in the world!). Now that the dust has settled on 2020, we are pleased to share this roundup of copyright developments that happened during the final weeks of last year. First, we saw a new draft bill seeking to reform the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”), and second, we saw two new copyright provisions included within the year-end stimulus package. 

The Digital Copyright Act of 2021

In late December 2020, Senator Thom Tillis released a draft bill which aimed to make several reforms to the DMCA. Senator Tillis released this bill after posing a series of questions for stakeholders regarding how the DMCA could be reformed to reflect the needs of copyright holders and the state of the world 22 years after the DMCA was passed. Authors Alliance submitted a response to these questions, as did a multitude of other organizations and individuals. Our response cautioned against a notice-and-staydown system, and instead advised Senator Tillis that copyright law should seek to align the interests of individual creators with the interests of the public for whom they create. We also suggested several existing and new temporary exemptions to DMCA section 1201’s prohibition on bypassing technical protection measures that could be made permanent, and supported a proposal to streamline the section 1201 rule-making process. Finally, we argued that any reforming legislation should require a nexus between the relevant use and copyright infringement for there to be a violation of section 1201.

Senator Tillis’s bill proposes many reforms to copyright law, and unfortunately incorporates few of our suggestions. Most concerningly, the bill replaces the current “notice-and-takedown” system with a notice-and-staydown system whereby, once a copyright holder notifies a service provider that they believe a particular use is infringing, the service provider must remove all subsequent infringing uses unless the user makes a statement that the use is licensed or otherwise authorized by law (such as being a fair use). The draft bill also lowers the specificity required in takedown notices, establishes the Copyright Office as a division of the Department of Commerce, limits liability for users who use orphan works after a diligent but unsuccessful search for the copyright holder, and makes changes to the Copyright Office’s triennial rule-making process and exemptions on the DMCA’s prohibition on bypassing technical protection measures with the aim of streamlining the process. Senator Tillis has invited stakeholders to submit reply comments to the draft bill by March 5th.

Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement Act of 2020 (CASE Act)

The year-end stimulus package included a provision Authors Alliance has spoken out against before: The CASE Act, co-sponsored by several members of Congress. In short, the CASE Act creates a small claims tribunal—known as the Copyright Claims Board (“CCB”)—within the Copyright Office for copyright disputes as an alternative to pursuing copyright claims in federal court. Proponents of the CASE Act argue that it will help individual creators, who often cannot afford the expense of bringing litigation in federal court, but are more likely to be able to afford the lesser costs associated with pursuing the dispute in the CCB. A more accessible forum for resolving copyright disputes is an admirable goal, but the CASE Act seeks to achieve it in a way that is, in our view, extremely flawed. The CASE Act allows for excessive damages, does not provide for review by a court in most cases, and the overall scheme is one we fear will invite litigation by copyright trolls. 

In September 2019, we wrote to Congress voicing our concerns about the CASE Act, but unfortunately it was signed into law last month as part of the year-end stimulus package, leading critics to note that it had little to nothing to do with the “must-pass spending bill.” The CCB is set to begin operations by the end of December 2021, unless the Copyright Office makes the determination to delay implementation.

Protecting Lawful Streaming Act of 2020

Also included in the year-end stimulus package was a provision known as the Protecting Lawful Streaming Act. The Act—sponsored and led by Senator Thom Tillis and Senator Patrick Leahy—targets and punishes “commercial, for profit” services that stream large amounts of copyrighted content without proper authorization. Senator Tillis has said that these services cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars annually. The provision drew attention in part because of its harsh penalties—violators can be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.

The Protect Lawful Streaming Act is not intended to apply to individual Internet users who access such unauthorized streams, and co-sponsor Senator Leahy has characterized the law as a “narrow” one which only “target[s] only commercial, for-profit criminal privacy.” Critics have noted that there is no glaring need for harsher criminal penalties for copyright infringement, which can already be incredibly costly for alleged infringers, but also acknowledged that the Act is narrow enough that it is unlikely to create liability for individual users or institutional actors acting in good faith. This law is also unlikely to directly negatively affect authors, though we are always wary of expanding copyright liability where there may not be a particular need.

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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