On Friday, the Second Circuit published its long-awaited decision in Authors Guild v. Google, holding that the Google Books project was fair use. The litigation has extended over a decade, and the court’s opinion ably recounts the factual and legal background so there is no need to repeat that here. Surely it will provide fodder for plenty of commentary over the coming months, but for now, I wanted to highlight an ancillary point: the court’s apparent overlook of its fair use holding in Cariou v. Prince.
Cariou involved the appropriation, without permission, by celebrity artist Richard Prince of over thirty photos taken by professional photographer Patrick Cariou, to create a series of new works. Prince asserted a fair use defense after Cariou sued him for copyright infringement. The district court rejected the fair use defense. Key to its holding was its response to Prince’s assertion that “use of copyrighted materials as raw materials in creating ‘appropriation art’ which does not comment on the copyrighted original is a fair use.” The court disagreed, saying it was “aware of no precedent holding that such use is fair absent transformative comment on the original.”
To the contrary, the illustrative fair uses listed in the preamble to § 107—“criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching […], scholarship, [and] research”—all have at their core a focus on the original works or their historical context, and all of the precedent this Court can identify imposes a requirement that the new work in some way comment on, relate to the historical context of, or critically refer back to the original works.
On appeal, the Second Circuit reversed, finding all but five of Prince’s works to be fair use (the remaining five were remanded to the district court on the issue). In doing so, the Second Circuit disputed the above statement from the lower court, saying, “The law imposes no requirement that a work comment on the original or its author in order to be considered transformative … Prince’s work could be transformative even without commenting on Cariou’s work or on culture, and even without Prince’s stated intention to do so.”
The New York Times noted that the decision was criticized by copyright experts and photographers. I also criticized the decision, and later wrote that it ignored a long-standing principle that fair use requires that the use of the original work is essential to the new work for some purpose related to those listed in the statute (“criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching […], scholarship, [and] research”). This necessity principle, I observed, can be derived from the underlying justifications of fair use—which include furthering the goals of copyright itself and providing First Amendment safeguards.
My discussion was motivated by the Seventh Circuit’s 2014 decision in Kienitz v. Sconnie Nation, which, after criticizing the Second Circuit’s holding in Cariou, touched briefly upon the necessity requirement. There, Judge Easterbrook said,
There’s no good reason why defendants should be allowed to appropriate someone else’s copyrighted efforts as the starting point in their lampoon, when so many non-copyrighted alternatives (including snapshots they could have taken themselves) were available. The fair-use privilege under §107 is not designed to protect lazy appropriators. Its goal instead is to facilitate a class of uses that would not be possible if users always had to negotiate with copyright proprietors.
Following the Supreme Court’s denial of cert in Sconnie Nation, it seemed like we’d be stuck with a bit of a circuit split between the Seventh Circuit and the Second (and Ninth) Circuit. Until Authors Guild.
Judge Leval, who authored the opinion, began his fair use analysis by exploring what it means to be “transformative” in the fair use context (a term he himself introduced into copyright jurisprudence). It “does not mean that any and all changes made to an author’s original text will necessarily support a finding of fair use.” To explain the distinction, Leval turned to the same passage from the Supreme Court’s opinion in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose that I relied on to describe the necessity requirement. There, the Court explained (as quoted by Leval),
[T]he heart of any parodist’s claim to quote from existing material . . . is the use of . . . a prior author’s composition to . . .comment on that author’s works. . . . If, on the contrary, the commentary has no critical bearing on the substance or style of the original composition, which the alleged infringer merely uses to get attention or to avoid the drudgery in working up something fresh, the claim to fairness in borrowing from another’s work diminishes accordingly (if it does not vanish). . . . Parody needs to mimic an original to make its point, and so has some claim to use the creation of its victim’s . . . imagination, whereas satire can stand on its own two feet and so requires justification for the very act of borrowing.
Leval drives this point home, saying,
In other words, the would-be fair user of another’s work must have justification for the taking. A secondary author is not necessarily at liberty to make wholesale takings of the original author’s expression merely because of how well the original author’s expression would convey the secondary author’s different message. Among the best recognized justifications for copying from another’s work is to provide comment on it or criticism of it. A taking from another author’s work for the purpose of making points that have no bearing on the original may well be fair use, but the taker would need to show a justification.
This would appear to contradict Cariou—there, Prince did not have any justification for using Cariou’s photos; indeed, he did not articulate any reason at all for using them, but the court nevertheless held that to be a fair use. I say appear to contradict since a panel court cannot overrule prior holdings by the same court, so we are left with a state of tension between the holdings in Cariou and Authors Guild.
Nevertheless, and setting aside other aspects of this decision, the Second Circuit’s recognition of the necessity requirement of fair use is a welcome one.