In 1985, the Supreme Court said, “The fair use doctrine is not a license for corporate theft, empowering a court to ignore a copyright whenever it determines the underlying work contains material of possible public importance.” 1Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. v. Nation Enterprises, 471 US 539, 558, quoting Iowa State University Research Foundation, Inc. v. American Broadcasting Cos., Inc., 621 F. 2d 57, 61 (1980). Last week, a court held to the contrary.

In a September 9th order, the Southern District Court of New York granted summary judgment in favor of TVEyes, a media monitoring company, on the issue of fair use. Fox News Network had filed a lawsuit against TVEyes for recording its station continuously and creating a searchable database out of its content and the content of 1,400 other television and radio stations.

Like other media monitoring services, TVEyes allows subscribers to track news coverage of particular events or issues. The service begins at $500 month; in 2013 the company had revenues of $8 million, with over 2,200 subscribers. Fox News Network owns and operates Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network, delivering twenty-four hour news and business coverage. It also actively licenses video clips to third parties. Fox News asked the court to order TVEyes to stop using Fox content without permission for its service, and both parties moved for summary judgment. In last week’s order, the court only addressed the copying and distribution of Fox News clips to TVEyes subscribers — the service also allows subscribers to “save, archive, download, email, and share clips,” features that the court needs more evidence to rule on.

But in finding this wholesale, commercial copying to be fair use, the decision stands as an example of just how dramatically — and fundamentally — the fair use doctrine has been transformed in just a few decades. What was once a bounded exception allowing reasonable use of copyrighted works when necessary for specific purposes has become a broad and sweeping mechanism that allows courts to seemingly ignore copyright at their own discretion.

Transformative Use

The modern conception of “fair use” — an independent, affirmative defense against copyright infringement that takes into account a number of factors such as the purpose of the use — does not seem to have consistently established itself in US courts until the mid-1950s. This was also the same time that the Copyright Office released a study on fair use as part of the revision process that would eventually result in the 1976 Copyright Act. The 76 Act marked the first statutory reference to fair use. Section 107 of the Act reads:

Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include—

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.

But perhaps just as important to the development of the fair use doctrine is a 1990 law review article by federal judge Pierre Leval, Toward a Fair Use Standard. The prescriptive essay argued that the “heart” of the fair use inquiry was the first factor, the purpose and character of the use, and that the answer to the inquiry lied in determining whether the challenged use is “transformative.” Leval wrote:

The use must be productive and must employ the quoted matter in a different manner or for a different purpose from the original. A quotation of copyrighted material that merely repackages or republishes the original is unlikely to pass the test; in Justice Story’s words, it would merely “supersede the objects” of the original. If, on the other hand, the secondary use adds value to the original–if the quoted matter is used as raw material, transformed in the creation of new information, new aesthetics, new insights and understandings– this is the very type of activity that the fair use doctrine intends to protect for the enrichment of society.

Four years later, the Supreme Court referenced Leval’s “transformative” framing, and lower courts have followed its lead since. 2Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 510 US 569, 579 (1994). But regardless of how descriptively accurate this framing might be, the TVEyes decision demonstrates its shortcomings as an actual standard.

For one, it is ill-defined, an incoherence revealed by the TVEyes court at the outset. The court begins its discussion by stating that “Transformation almost always occurs when the new work ‘does something more than repackage or republish the original copyrighted work.'” But that sentence is immediately followed by this one: “A use ‘can be transformative in function or purpose without altering or actually adding to the original work.'” Perhaps these two seemingly contradictory statements — both from Second Circuit decisions from the past year — can be reconciled, but the court spends no time doing so. Instead, it offers the following conclusory analysis:

Unlike the indexing and excerpting of news articles, where the printed word conveys the same meaning no matter the forum or medium in which it is viewed, the service provided by TVEyes is transformative. By indexing and excerpting all content appearing in television, every hour of the day and every day of the week, month, and year, TVEyes provides a service that no content provider provides. Subscribers to TVEyes gain access, not only to the news that is presented, but to the presentations themselves, as colored, processed, and criticized by commentators, and as abridged, modified, and enlarged by news broadcasts.

In other words, “the use is transformative because TVEyes copied the entire work verbatim, and don’t worry if that is indistinguishable from the definition for infringement.” The court does little to shed more light on its reasoning when it later endorses TVEyes’ assertion that “monitoring television is simply not the same as watching it.” Along the same lines, I suppose you could argue that it’s fair use to copy reality television shows so long as you watch them ironically.

Fortunately, less than a day ago, the Seventh Circuit explicitly rejected the transformative use test, noting that “To say a new use transforms a work is precisely to say that it is derivative and thus, one might suppose, protected under §106(2).” 3Kienitz v. Sconnie Nation, No. 13-3004 (7th Cir. 2014). The court characterized the discussion of transformative use in Campbell as a “suggestion.” Instead, said the court, “We think it best to stick with the statutory list…”

Commerciality

Another dramatic turn in fair use doctrine is seen in the treatment of “commerciality” in the first factor. Traditionally, courts have given wider berth to scholarly and non-profit users of copyrighted works. In its 1984 Betamax decision, the Supreme Court observed that every commercial use of copyrighted material is presumptively unfair. However, a decade later, the Court would retreat from that holding and remove the presumption. In Campbell, the Court explained that, “If, indeed, commerciality carried presumptive force against a finding of fairness, the presumption would swallow nearly all of the illustrative uses listed in the preamble paragraph of § 107, including news reporting, comment, criticism, teaching, scholarship, and research, since these activities ‘are generally conducted for profit in this country.'” Instead, the Court adopted a sliding scale approach, where commerciality should be treated as merely “a fact to be ‘weighed along with other[s] in fair use decisions.'” Nowadays, commerciality has little, if any, role in the fair use doctrine. 4See Matthew Sag, Predicting Fair Use, 72 Ohio State Law Journal 47, 77 (2012) (finding commercial use as a factor insignificant in a study of 280 fair use decisions from 1978-2011); Barton Beebe, An Empirical Study of U.S. Copyright Fair Use Opinions, 1978–2005, 156 U. PA. L. Rev. 549 (2008) (finding commerciality has no significant impact on case outcomes in study of 306 fair use decisions from 1978-2005).

TVEyes continues this trend. The court does note that “Clearly, TVEyes is a for-profit company, and enjoys revenue and income from the service it provides.” But it follows this with a recitation of the above language from Campbell without a word more.

Amount and Substantiality Used

The implementation of the third fair use factor, which looks at “the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole” has also noticeably shifted in recent decades. In fact, until Betamax, it was virtually axiomatic that copying an entire work could never be fair use. 5See Williams & Wilkins Company v. United States, 487 F. 2d 1345, 1366 (Ct of Claims 1973); Public Affairs Associates, Inc. v. Rickover, 284 F.2d 262, 272 (DC Cir. 1960); Benny v. Loew’s Inc., 239 F.2d 532, 536 (9th Cir.1956); Leon v. Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Co., 91 F.2d 484, 486 (9th Cir.1937) (“Counsel have not disclosed a single authority, nor have we been able to find one, which lends any support to the proposition that wholesale copying and publication of copyrighted material can ever be fair use.”). But Betamax held, in part, that home taping of broadcast television by VCR owners was a fair use, despite the fact that exact duplicates of complete works were being made. This holding drew a sharp rebuke from the four Justices on the dissent, who said, “Fair use is intended to allow individuals engaged in productive uses to copy small portions of original works that will facilitate their own productive endeavors. Time-shifting bears no resemblance to such activity, and the complete duplication that it involves might alone be sufficient to preclude a finding of fair use. It is little wonder that the Court has chosen to ignore this statutory factor.”

Since then, the floodgates have been opened. Last year, for example, the Southern District Court of New York held that the wholesale copying of twenty million books (by a for-profit corporation) was a fair use. 6Authors Guild, Inc. v. Google Inc., 954 F. Supp. 2d 282 (SDNY 2013). Though, to be fair, the court did note that the third factor weighed “slightly against” a finding of fair use.

In TVEyes, the departure from third factor tradition is even more striking. Not only is TVEyes copying entire works, it’s copying entire stations. There is nothing Fox News airs that TVEyes doesn’t copy. Yet, not only does the court not consider this a negative that might otherwise be outweighed by the other three factors, it suggests that this factor favors TVEyes. Said the court, “One cannot say that TVEyes copies more than is necessary to its transformative purpose for, if TVEyes were to copy less, the reliability of its all-inclusive service would be compromised.” Or, you can copy everything if your purpose is to copy everything.

Public Benefit

The final area of fair use transformation is seen in the court’s consideration of the fourth factor, “the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.” The court here says, “The fourth factor requires a balance between the ‘benefit the public will derive if the use is permitted, and the personal gain the copyright owner will receive if the use is denied,'” (emphasis added) citing to the Second Circuit’s 2006 decision in Bill Graham Archives v. Dorling Kindersley L’td. Since that language appears nowhere in the statute, it’s worth taking a closer look at where it came from. Bill Graham itself cites an earlier Second Circuit decision: MCA, Inc. v. Wilson. There, the court said of the fourth factor, “where a claim of fair use is made, a balance must sometimes be struck between the benefit the public will derive if the use is permitted and the personal gain the copyright owner will receive if the use is denied.” (Emphasis added). So already we’ve made the jump from a balance that “must sometimes be struck” to an absolute requirement. But if we look even closer, we see that the cases MCA cites to support its proposition are not discussing the fourth fair use factor specifically but fair use in general. This makes sense, since fair use is a doctrine where courts strike a balance between public and private interests. But somewhere along the lines, the Second Circuit duplicated this principle into the fourth fair use factor.

Leaving the doctrinal history aside, TVEye‘s discussion of the public benefit leaves much to be desired (never mind the fact that the service is, as noted by the court, not available to the general public). It essentially boils down to this: TVEye offers a useful service. Of course, most businesses offer useful services; otherwise, they wouldn’t remain in business long. And the operation of business does benefit the public in the broadest sense. But this definition of the public benefit if too wide to be of much use here — and, more importantly, it doesn’t explain why a for-profit business that provides a service involving the regular copying of copyrighted works should be privileged under the law from licensing those works. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I don’t think asking a business to pay its suppliers is unfair.

And the Supreme Court would agree, at least thirty years ago. After its line about fair use and corporate theft, quoted at the beginning of this article, the Court in Harper & Row continued:

In our haste to disseminate news, it should not be forgotten that the Framers intended copyright itself to be the engine of free expression. By establishing a marketable right to the use of one’s expression, copyright supplies the economic incentive to create and disseminate ideas.

***

It is fundamentally at odds with the scheme of copyright to accord lesser rights in those works that are of greatest importance to the public. Such a notion ignores the major premise of copyright and injures author and public alike. “[T]o propose that fair use be imposed whenever the `social value [of dissemination] . . . outweighs any detriment to the artist,’ would be to propose depriving copyright owners of their right in the property precisely when they encounter those users who could afford to pay for it.”

References   [ + ]

1. Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. v. Nation Enterprises, 471 US 539, 558, quoting Iowa State University Research Foundation, Inc. v. American Broadcasting Cos., Inc., 621 F. 2d 57, 61 (1980).
2. Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 510 US 569, 579 (1994).
3. Kienitz v. Sconnie Nation, No. 13-3004 (7th Cir. 2014). The court characterized the discussion of transformative use in Campbell as a “suggestion.”
4. See Matthew Sag, Predicting Fair Use, 72 Ohio State Law Journal 47, 77 (2012) (finding commercial use as a factor insignificant in a study of 280 fair use decisions from 1978-2011); Barton Beebe, An Empirical Study of U.S. Copyright Fair Use Opinions, 1978–2005, 156 U. PA. L. Rev. 549 (2008) (finding commerciality has no significant impact on case outcomes in study of 306 fair use decisions from 1978-2005).
5. See Williams & Wilkins Company v. United States, 487 F. 2d 1345, 1366 (Ct of Claims 1973); Public Affairs Associates, Inc. v. Rickover, 284 F.2d 262, 272 (DC Cir. 1960); Benny v. Loew’s Inc., 239 F.2d 532, 536 (9th Cir.1956); Leon v. Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Co., 91 F.2d 484, 486 (9th Cir.1937) (“Counsel have not disclosed a single authority, nor have we been able to find one, which lends any support to the proposition that wholesale copying and publication of copyrighted material can ever be fair use.”).
6. Authors Guild, Inc. v. Google Inc., 954 F. Supp. 2d 282 (SDNY 2013). Though, to be fair, the court did note that the third factor weighed “slightly against” a finding of fair use.