For our second entry this week, we are excited to feature Kevin Smith, Director of Copyright and Scholarly Communication in the Office of Copyright and Scholarly Communication at Duke University.
What Does Fair Use Taste Like?
Will Cross, a colleague from the NCSU Libraries who teaches a graduate course on legal issues with me, frequently refers to the analogy for fair use that he learned as a law student at the University of North Carolina from the legendary Laura Gasaway – fair use is like soup. It sounds strange, doesn’t it? How could such an abstract and contested legal concept be anything like a warm and comforting bowl of soup? But there is real brilliance in this analogy.
One of the difficult things about explaining fair use is convincing people that it is a balancing test. It is not a checklist, where each factor must add up on the same side of the ledger to either confirm or exclude fair use. It is perhaps the least mechanical, the least “bright line” rule found in our law. And yet it works. And it works because it is like soup.
When an experienced chef is making soup, there are certainly things she has learned that do not change – 5 cups of broth for a pound of meat, sauté the onion first, add a small handful of oregano. But a lot of the process of putting those ingredients together is instinctual, if you will, or learned from experience. Add the salt and taste. Too much? A little more broth will balance it out. In short, making soup means taking the known ingredients, blending them together, and seeing if it tastes right.
With fair use we have a statutory list of four factors. They really tell us what the important facts are: where we should look, when evaluating a particular use, for the ingredients that go into the fair use soup. When we have gathered our ingredients – all the circumstances that describe the purpose of the use, the nature of the original, the amount used, and the impact on the market for the original – we are to look at the whole picture and decide if it looks fair. According to the Supreme Court in Campbell v. Acuff Rose, the factors are “explored and weighed together, in light of copyright’s purpose.” Does the soup taste right? If not, there are adjustments the user can make – a little less on the amount, a bit more of transformation (i.e. critical commentary). The goal is to get to the place where all the ingredients (the specific circumstances) blend together and the soup tastes like fair use. If this sounds subjective and uncertain, it is. But the analogy reminds us that we deal with uncertain judgments all the time, and experience teaches us to exercise good judgment, when we cook and when we assess fair use.
I have belabored this analogy because I find it so useful when thinking about fair use decisions. Consider the decision from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeal in Kienitz v. Sconnie Nation. That case involved a pretty straightforward transformative fair use issue, but it just did not taste right to the judge who wrote the ruling. The crux of the matter was that the mayor of Madison, Wisconsin wanted to stop a famous and irreverent block party that has been going on for years, and at which the mayor himself was apparently a reveler when he was a UW student. A local printing company printed t-shirts that lampooned the mayor for his change of heart, using a photograph of the mayor taken by Mr. Kienitz with the motto “Sorry for Partying” superimposed. The photo (it was, of course, the photographer who sued) was substantially altered for the image on the t-shirt, although the printer readily acknowledge that he had used the picture.
In finding that this was a fair use – a result dictated by lots of precedents – Judge Frank Easterbrook takes an odd approach. The key ingredient in this case, one would think, would be transformation. But Judge Easterbrook apparently dislikes transformation in the fair use soup (I feel the same way about okra). So although he acknowledges that the Supreme Court “mentions” the role of transformation, he dismisses it as a question for the case before him. In the process he also questions the well-known Bill Graham Archive v. Dorling Kindersley case from the 2nd Circuit, even though both cases seem right on point for Kienitz. Judge Easterbrook is just determined to not have transformation in his fair use soup, no matter how much the facts force that ingredient on him. Instead he hangs the bulk of his finding on two of the fair use factors – amount used and impact on the market – and dismisses the other two – purpose of the use and nature of the original – because they “don’t do much in this case.” This is a remarkable statement, since purpose of the use is often considered the most important factor (within the analysis of transformation), and the nature of the original (a portrait photograph) really is relevant in this controversy. But they are not ingredients that Judge Easterbrook can stomach, so he leaves them out of his soup.
The reason I find this case remarkable is, first, because Judge Easterbrook gets to the right result through very poor reasoning (see reactions to the decision here and here). But also because it illustrates the soup-like flexibility of fair use. If one ingredient in the analysis in not to the taste of a judge, he or she can try something different. There are lots of ways to find fair use, and lots of paths open to those who would practice it. That is the beauty of a balancing test, whether tasting the soup to see if it is good or balancing the factors to see if a use is fair. When users are contemplating a use, they can adjust the facts – the ingredients – until the balance seems right.
Of course, in many cases fair use claims are unquestionably palatable. The late Judge Baer, in his decision in Authors Guild v. HathiTrust, clearly enjoyed the taste of Hathi’s fair use claim when he wrote “I cannot imagine a definition of fair use that would not encompass the transformative uses made by Defendants…” That decision was largely upheld by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, the same Circuit whose taste in fair use Judge Easterbrook questions in his Kienitz decision.
All this raises a troubling question. Is fair use really just a matter of taste? Is a balancing test really as subjective as the soup analogy suggests? I think the answer is that it is not. For one thing, it is worth noting that Judge Easterbrook does not really jettison the question of transformativeness, in spite of the language of his opinion. Rather, he slips transformation into his soup in an unusual way, through the fourth fair use factor. When he finds that the t-shirts are “no substitute for the original photograph,” he is really saying that the original has been transformed in a way that serves a new purpose and creates a new meaning. He may not like the taste of the transformation analysis, but he cannot, and does not, wholly exclude it from his recipe. I think this illustrates an important general point about fair use. The factors are pointers that direct us to examine specific facts related to the proposed use. So we know what the ingredients are. And we balance those ingredients to achieve a specific “taste” – a use that serves rather than undermines the constitutionally-stated purpose of copyright. So we know the list of ingredients that go into fair use, and we know the overall “flavor” we are seeking. With those parameters in mind, we all have the opportunity to cook up a tasty batch of fair use soup.
Kevin Smith is Director of the Office of Copyright and Scholarly Communications and is both a librarian and an attorney experienced in copyright and technology law. He also serves as a nationally recognized resource on local and national policy in order to help the Duke community stay informed and involved with the changing landscape of scholarly publication. You can read his regular blog here. His latest book is Owning and Using Scholarship: An IP Handbook for Teachers and Researchers (2014).