For our third entry this week, we are excited to feature Prof. Niva Elkin-Koren,
Fair Use: Rights Matter
Fair use is often celebrated as essential for access to knowledge (A2K), and the wide adoption of fair use is often viewed as key to its success. The flexibility rendered by this open norm has certainly enabled courts to adjust exceptions and limitations in a rapidly changing world. Many countries worldwide are seriously considering adapting more flexible norms to address these challenges. However, fair use in and of itself might be insufficient to counterbalance the emerging challenges to open access. We have reached a point where many of the threats to access we face nowadays lie beyond copyright. We might be entering a phase where copyright is taking a back seat, making room for more powerful mechanisms which govern access to cultural works. In light of these changes, a more comprehensive approach to user rights might be necessary.
New challenges to A2K
The rise of cloud computing and mobile Internet has transformed the delivery of content from the sale of copies to the provision of services. Rather than buying books, CDs and DVDs, we are now offered access to eBooks, all-you-can-eat online music subscription and movie streaming services for a monthly fee. The shift from copies to services places control over content in the hands of the service providers. Users lack perpetual control over physical copies. Restrictions on copying, playing and re-mix are set by design, and overall, access to content may expire at any time. A striking example of the lack of user control over a purchased digital copy is the Orwellian 1984 saga in which Amazon.com remotely removed from Kindle purchased copies of George Orwell’s book 1984 due to some copyright concerns. Following a public outcry, Amazon.com apologized and later settled a class action brought against it for violating its terms of service by its remote deletion.
Much of online copyright nowadays is enforced by online intermediaries and embedded in their design. Algorithms filter, block, and disable access to allegedly infringing materials. Ubiquitous practices of monitoring and automated filtering by online platforms create further layers of protection which may threaten access to knowledge. Some platforms (such as YouTube) have even turned this into a business model (like Content ID). The choices made by the online intermediaries on filtering, removing, disabling uses or blocking access to online materials lack any transparency and legal oversight. There are numerous anecdotal examples of erroneous removals and blocking access to non-infringing materials (false positive), but its overall scope remains unknown. Clearly however, the removal of non-infringing materials, which might be legitimately used without needing a license, threatens access to knowledge. The robustness of algorithmic filtering, removal and blocking practices is effectively changing copyright default. If copyrighted materials were once available, unless proven infringing, materials detected by the algorithm are now unavailable unless explicitly authorized by the copyright owner.
Overall, these developments in law, design and business models limit the freedom of users to access, experience, transform and dispose of copyrighted (and non-copyrighted) materials.
Is fair use sufficient?
The fencing of cultural works by licenses and algorithms call for a different approach to addressing the freedom of access protected under fair use.
Some courts have a taken a rather narrow approach to fair use, viewing it merely as a legal defense. Fair use as a “defense” authorizes the court to avoid rigid application of copyright exclusive rights, and to hold an otherwise infringing use as non-infringing in particular circumstances. Consequently, fair use may only come into play when a copyright infringement claim is made by copyright owners. Yet, in the emerging environment of licenses and algorithms, copyright is neither the problem nor the solution. Fair use as a legal defense is mostly irrelevant to many of these legal frameworks, and consequently the Legal Defense Approach to fair use might be insufficient to counterbalance these developments.
Others perceive fair use not simply as a legal defense but as an integral mechanism set forth by copyright law to achieve its goals. From this perspective, fair use doctrine critically limits the scope of the monopoly granted to authors under copyright law. It is set to identify the circumstances where unlicensed use should be permissible in order to promote the goals that copyright law seeks to achieve. Consequently, uses that fall under fair use are not simply non-infringing but in fact are desirable, therefore permissible. The right to perform these uses without a license derives from copyright intended goals.
A User Rights Approach to fair use presumes that incentives to authors provide only one means of promoting creativity, while other, equally important mechanisms focus on securing adequate access rights for users. Put differently, the rights of authors (for incentives or just reward) and the rights of users to use creative works (e.g., read, learn, disseminate, re-use and transform) are different mechanisms for promoting copyright goals.
User rights: a global view
User rights were first explicitly recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2004, in the landmark case of CCH Canadian Limited. v. Law Society of Upper Canada. This approach was recentlyreaffirmed in a series of copyright decisions. The Canadian Supreme Court, citing with approval Professor David Vaver, explained: “Users’ rights are not just loopholes. Both owner rights and user rights should therefore be given the fair and balanced reading that benefits remedial legislation”.
In Israel, which only recently introduced fair use into the statute with the 2007 Copyright Act, the issue of user rights has already been tackled by the Israeli Supreme Court. Initially, in 2012 the Court explicitly rejected the position that fair use is a user right. The Football Association Premier League Ltd v Anonymous (2012) involved a petition to unmask the identity of an anonymous user who streamed infringing broadcasts of football matches owned by the English Premier League. Even though the petition was dismissed on procedural grounds, the Court held that streaming constituted copyright infringement and fair use did not apply. In rejecting the User Rights Approach the Court explained that fair use should be understood as simply a legal defense.
Soon after, in Telran Ltd. v Charlton Communications (2013), the Court questioned this approach. The case involved the legality of marketing decoding cards which enabled Israeli customers to decode the encoded broadcasts of the World Cup games, which were transmitted by foreign channels via satellites. The Court held that merely distributing the decoding cards did not amount to a copyright infringement, nor was it a contributory infringement, since simply watching copyrighted materials did not constitute copyright infringement. The Court explicitly rejected the fair use Defense Approach of the Premier League Court, noting that fair use is not merely a technical defense to copyright infringement but a permissible use. A few weeks later, in the case of Safecom v Raviv (2013), the Supreme Court reaffirmed this approach in a case addressing the copying of drawings of a functional electric device in a patent application submitted to the USPTO. The Court cited with agreement the user rights approach upheld in Telran and suggested that the time was ripe for holding an extended judicial panel on that matter.
These recent developments in Canada and Israel suggest that the legal status of fair use might have far-reaching consequences. Canadian copyright law includes fair dealing provisions, which are far more limited than fair use. Under fair dealing the use not only has to be proven fair, but must also fall under one of the strictly defined purposes enumerated by law. The Supreme Court of Canada held that since fair dealing was a user right “it must not be interpreted restrictively.” Accordingly, the Court broadly interpreted research, under fair dealing, as also covering sampling during consumer research, and private study as also including copying by teachers.
The Israeli adjudication on user rights suggests that simply introducing into the statute a fair use provision is not the final end of copyright reform. It is rather the beginning of an ongoing struggle to safeguard unlicensed use that is deemed necessary to the very creativity which copyright law is designed to foster.
Overall, a User Rights Approach to fair use may offer more robust safeguards of users’ liberties in the digital ecosystem. Making fair use more universally adopted might be a good cause. But without strengthening the legal status of fair use, and developing a jurisprudence of fair use rights, we may end up fighting the battles of the past.
Niva Elkin-Koren is the founding director of the Haifa Center for Law & Technology (HCLT) and the former dean of the University of Haifa Faculty of Law. Her research focuses on the legal institutions that facilitate private and public control over the production and dissemination of knowledge. She is a co-founder of the Alliance of Israeli Institutions of Higher Education for Promoting Access to Scientific Materials which drafted a Code of Fair Use Best Practices for academic institutions in Israel. Her publications are listed here.