Book Review: Reclaiming Fair Use

Reclaiming Fair Use Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright by Patricia Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2011. It’s a well-written history of fair use interpretation and an important corrective to over-cautiousness in asserting user rights. Fair use is a provision of U.S. copyright law that, broadly speaking, allows use of copyrighted works when the social benefit is greater than the owner’s loss. The law sets out four factors which are used to determine whether fair use can be employed: the nature of the use, the nature of the work used, the extent of the use, and its potential economic effect. But since there is no bright line or definitive calculation of the four factors (and other factors which may have bearing), the effect has been limiting (p. xi):

We saw that when people do not understand the law, when they are constantly afraid that they might get caught for referring to copyrighted culture- whether an image, or a phrase of a song, or a popular cartoon character- they can’t do their best work.

Aufderheide and Jaszi feel that the four factors (and checklists based on them) have been hindrance (p. 183):

People love checklists, because they hope that the lists will do their fair-use reasoning for them. But checklists tend to be more trouble than help. Sometimes a checklist simply discourages fair use in situations where the user might have an adequate rationale not captured by the list. More often, checklists simply lead to further confusion. Focused on the four factors, they treat the factors as if they had a concreteness that they do not. Those four factors have been widely interpreted by judges over the years.

Instead they distill fair use evaluation into three questions (p. 24 and 135):

Was the use of copyrighted material for a different purpose, rather than just reuse for the original purpose? Was the amount of material taken appropriate to the purpose of the use? Was it reasonable within the field or discipline it was made in?

The first and third questions are especially important in the revitalization of fair use. While copyright has become “long and strong” in recent decades, fair use has made a comeback since the late 1990s to lend the law more balance. Fair use interpretations have been primarily strengthened in two ways: first through the concept of transformativeness (use for a different purpose than originally intended), and more recently through development of codes of practice for particular fields. Both are now major considerations by courts (p. 80). Aufderheide and Jaszi have been leaders in developing best practices for various communities, first with documentary filmmakers (a process related in Chapter 7) and most recently as contributors to initial work toward a code of practice for the visual arts (PDF).

Codes of best practice “represent a common understanding in a community of practice” (p. 120) and emphasize demonstrating good faith (e.g. through attribution). The codes developed thus far are in agreement on three areas of fair use: critique, illustration, and incidental capture. The codes are also balanced in the sense that the communities (e.g. documentary filmmakers) are often creators as well, so they must take into account how their own work might be used. Aufderheide and Jaszi emphasize that, like a muscle, fair use is strengthened by use– it is one arena in which behavior affects the law, not vice-versa. In addition to communities of practice, the law provides exceptions for certain kinds of use, such as the educational exemptions in Section 110-1 and 110-2.

While the authors champion fair use, they are clear about the problems that remain. In the digital environment, many works are leased rather than owned, and contracts may include language limiting fair use rights. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998 made it illegal to override digital encryption, so exercising one’s fair use rights becomes impossible. Reliance on the courts to interpret fair use has its disadvantages, and one casualty has been music sampling. The interaction of three court cases has severely limited fair use for music (p. 90-93). Formal copyright registration entitles owners to statutory damages, and the potential maximum has a chilling effect (p. 32). The courts have also expanded secondary liability. The authors call for for advocacy on DMCA reform as well as on orphan works.

Aufderheide and Jaszi are unexpectedly critical of free-culture and commons advocates. They indict free-culture activists for making copyright the villain (p. 48) and seeking alternatives elsewhere rather than acknowledging balancing effects of copyright law such as fair use (p. 54):

The commons rhetoric… celebrates a particular vision of the public domain as a space entirely free of intellectual property constraint, while either ignoring or slighting exemptions and balancing features that limit copyright owners’ monopoly control.

Yet the commons is growing steadily, and search engines now allow users to filter images by license. And in their discussion of the public domain (p. 141), the authors fail to mention the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license for intentionally placing works in the public domain. While commons advocates may have overlooked fair use, the unnecessary distinction between the two approaches is contradicted by the authors’ own work on a code of practice for OpenCourseWare, which relies on both open licensing and fair use.

The international environment for fair use is covered in Chapter 10. Most countries lack a fair use provision, but have a much lower risk of litigation and lack statutory damages for infringement. Because fair use is the exception rather than the rule, harmonization of copyright through treaties is a continuing threat to it.

Fair use is deliberately vague, and always a case-by-case decision. To Aufderheide and Jaszi, this is a feature, not a bug (p. 163):

Creators benefit from the fact that the copyright law does not exactly specify how to apply fair use…. Fair use is flexible; it is not uncertain or unreliable.

Reclaiming Fair Use features inset boxes throughout the text, “Fair Use: You Be The Judge” (with answers at the back) and “True Tales of Fair Use,” and has five useful appendices, including a template for a code of best practices and a section on myths and realities of fair use. While it contains more background than some readers may desire (they can go straight to Chapter 9, “How To Fair Use”), this book is a valuable perspective on fair use and always interesting and well-written.

More information about fair use, including codes of practice, can be found at the Center for Media & Social Impact at American University, which Aufderheide co-directs. In addition, Jaszi provided testimony on fair use to a House of Representatives subcommittee in January (his testimony begins at 39:00 in the video, and his written submission is available in PDF).

Reclaiming Fair Use is available as an e-book through the University Libraries.

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About Philip Young

Philip Young is Scholarly Communication Librarian at Virginia Tech where he supports outreach about open access, copyright/open licensing, open data, ORCID, and metrics/altmetrics.

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