Previously, the District Court ruled that most of the uses in question were fair use. On appeal, it didn't look like things were necessarily going well for academic users. Indeed, today's ruling reverses the lower court's rulings, vacates some results of the ruling, and remands the case back to the lower court for reconsideration in light of the corrections made in today's ruling. But given the possibilities contemplated after oral arguments, (and heck, given the concurring opinion attached to this ruling) things definitely could be worse!
Excellently Good Things
- The court's opinion confirms that the 1976 Classroom Copying Guidelines are not law, and not an appropriate lens through which to consider fair use in course contexts. (The court also affirms that even though the Guidelines are maybe informative, they were originally intended as a floor, not a ceiling, on fair use.)
Maybe this isn't great news to the many folks who have (quite correctly) long-since abandoned applying any mental energy to the outdated Guidelines. However, I regularly encounter librarians, library workers, teachers, and other educators who have received no other information about fair use - and often, these folks have explicitly been trained that the Guidelines are the One True (and complete maximum) Way to Know Fair Use in classroom contexts. (Oddly enough, many of them have also received their only copyright training at no cost, from generous publishers...) Having an affirming court opinion to refer to that clearly refutes the applicability of the Classroom Guidelines is quite a blessing, from my perspective.
- The court extensively discusses the public purpose of copyright law. Section B of the opinion (page 46-55) is a masterfully written, quite clear overview of the theoretical underpinnings of U.S. copyright law in general, and of fair use in particular. (I think it's a bit weaker in the second half, but pages 46-50 are really darn good reading.)
The idea that creator remuneration is -secondary- to the actual purpose of copyright law is often left out of a lot of related public discourse. Most artists (and most lawyers I've met who represent artists or corporate creators) would put creator remuneration at the center of copyright. But this opinion (quoting from many, many other opinions) affirms again that "[p]romoting the creation and dissemination of ideas has been the goal" since the Statute of Anne, and that this is because the creation and dissemination of ideas is a public good. Moreover, the court affirms that "[t]he fair use doctrine also critically limits the scope of the monopoly granted to authors under the Copyright Act in order to promote the public benefit copyright is intended to achieve."
- The court agreed that case-by-case, or work-by-work is the appropriate approach to fair use. Since the alternative the Plaintiffs were arguing for was that "a nebulous cloud of infringements purportedly caused by GSU's 'ongoing practices'" were the correct form of inquiry, all institutions that rely on fair use in daily practice got off well here.
- The court agreed that non-profit educational purposes are especially valuable under fair use law. "Congress devoted extensive effort to ensure that fair use would allow for educational copying under the proper circumstances and was sufficiently determined to achieve this goal that it amended the text of the statute at the eleventh hour in order to expressly state it."
- The court affirmed that relevance to a pedagogical goal -is- relevant to fair use. (p. 86) (Plaintiffs had argued relevance to purpose was only relevant for transformative, parodic uses.)
- The court disapproved of Judge Evans' blanket 10%-or-one-chapter rule. While avoiding bright line rules does make life more difficult for end-users, this was a bright line very few people were comfortable with; it limits other interplays such as relevance to pedagogical purpose.
- The court would not consider the argument (apparently raised late in the deliberations of the District Court) that the correct frame of reference for measuring the "amount" of the work being used was a single chapter, rather than the whole book. Since the Plaintiffs primarily went along with arguments about how to determine the number of pages in the book, in order to determine how much of the book each chapter was, the court agreed that the discussion had to be had in terms of how much of the book each chapter was, not how much of the chapter.
Something to remember for your litigation practice, law students. Raise it too late, and the argument's gone.
- In addition to rejecting the applicability of the Classroom Copying Guidelines, the court also rejected the coursepack copying cases as binding authority, or apparently even as very persuasive. They're vaguely acknowledged, but not followed.
- The court soundly rejects the idea that excerpts from books substitute for sales of the -actual books-. (p. 94) Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, it then goes on to confirm that unlicensed excerpts do substitute for sales of licenses-to-excerpt. But, also happily, it does affirm that "the ability to license does not demand a finding against fair use." (p. 95)
- Section B of the opinion is, as I said, a masterful overview of the theoretical underpinnings of U.S. copyright law. Since we frame our law as deeply tied to economic incentives for authors to create, it's not surprising that this section has extensive discussion of how allowing too much "unpaid copying" will harm the economic incentives, and thus result in an outcome that doesn't further the public good of ongoing development of new knowledge and ideas.
Two things bother me about the focus on economic incentives - but these things bother me about U.S. copyright theory in general, not this opinion in particular. The first is that this discussion completely fails to acknowledge the many other incentives creators have for creating. In particular, in academic contexts, creators fairly -rarely- receive direct economic benefits for their copyright ownership; its not entirely absent, but definitely a peripheral motive. But even outside academia, there are a lot of other reasons people create.
The other thing that bothers me about the focus on economic incentives is that market models don't actually reflect reality. I could get into deep critique of Coase or whatever, but this is a blog, and it's Friday night, and also, there are reasons I didn't go into economics full time. However, even the court in this opinion fully acknowledges that we have to do away with a lot of reality to delve much into fair use and economic incentives: "in making fair use determinations, we must conjure up a hypothetical, perfect market for the work in question, consisting of the whole universe of those who might buy it, in which everyone involved has perfect knowledge of the value of the work to its author and to potential buyers, and excluding for the moment any potential fair uses of the work. Then, keeping in mind the purposes animating copyright law--the fostering of learning and the creation of new works--we must determine how much of that value the implied licensee-fair users can capture before the value of the remaining market is so diminished that it no longer makes economic sense for the author--or a subsequent holder of the copyright--to propagate the work in the first place." (p. 51) (emphasis mine)
- The court affirmed that course readings are not transformative use. Although I respect the acumen of my colleagues who have argued otherwise, this has always seemed fairly straightforward to me. I am heartened that the court -also- affirmed that transformative purpose is NOT required to find that the "purpose" factor favors the user.
- The court found that Judge Evans erred in making a blanket determination that the works copied were primarily "factual". You have to look at each work individually, and determining the specific balance within a work is a pretty fine job. (The court also said, though, that this factor is not particularly important in the specific fair use analysis at hand.)
- The Appeals court held that availability of licenses to digitally excerpt a work was correctly determined by the District Court to affect whether there was market harm.
- Some of the additional considerations that Judge Evans entertained outside of the "four factors" analysis were held to more properly belong within it. (pp. 106-110)
- There is a weird element of Section B, where the court describes fair
use as an "implied-by-law" license that creators grant in return for the
grant of monopoly rights through copyright. While I'm familiar with
framing fair use as a quid pro quo for protection most of the time, the
framing of it as an "implied license" feels very strange.
- There's a mildly terrifying digression on pp. 67-70 into whether indirect benefits to a non-profit educational user can obviate their non-profit educational purpose (or at least counterweight it.) Thankfully, the court eventually concludes that "If this analysis were
persuasive, no use could qualify as "nonprofit" under the first factor. Moreover, if
the use is a fair use, then the copyright owner is not entitled to charge for the use,
and there is no "customary price" to be paid in the first place."
However, the court goes on to entertain, and answer in the negative, questions about whether GSU gained reputational benefits from its course copying. If these indirect reputational benefits undercut a non-profit educational purpose, it raises all kinds of odd issues for fair use in contexts like conference presentations! I'm going to think more about this (and do more research into the lines of fair use cases about indirect, noneconomic benefits.)
- The court observed that industry "best practices" are "not relevant to individualized fair use analysis". That could be a bad thing, because sometimes industry practices are all we have to go on to determine fair use. But it was a fairly glossed-over discussion, and they may have meant just that individual circumstances of a specific use case are more important than overall best practices...
Things I Don't Like
- The court's emphasis on how important market harm is, and the subtle and nuanced interplay of the four factors is not at all unexpected. I'm not a fan of their holding that, because they are not transformative, the uses in question are highly likely to be market-substitutions, and thus that the market harm factor is especially important. This, too, though, is not unexpected.
The thing I really don't like is that the court's emphasis on subtle interplays, and especially on the extra weighting of the fourth factor, creates some incredible barriers for the people who actually have to make fair use determinations about course readings - instructors! By placing additional weight on market harm - a factor about which end users have almost no information - the court is creating major difficulties for end users. It would be hard, but not impossible, for many instructors to find out if a license is available. It's really quite out of the question for individual instructors to correctly hypothesize -future- directions of the market...
I might be less frustrated by this if the court were not quite so emphatic in its embrace of the importance and value of educational fair use elsewhere: "allowing latitude for educational fair use promotes the goals of copyright." Teachers, definitely use fair use sometimes! Just, do so while having sophisticated business analysis skills for companies about which you have no data!"
[Edit: Please note, my suggestion that nuance creates challenges for end-users does NOT mean that I think "everyone should just pay for everything" is a remotely reasonable or workable alternative. Nuance is at the heart of fair use, and end users can deal with a lot of uncertainty. Just, particularly when its about information end-users -don't have-, it's problematic.]
- My frustration in the bullet immediately above is also reflective of another broad-scale problem with current copyright laws. They were drafted for a time when, in order to commit infringement on a scale that was noticeable by copyright holders, one more or less had to have some level of industrial-scale resources. It may have been reasonable then to expect that potential fair users could engage in a complex, intertwined, nuanced and even sort of iterative fair use analysis (though query whether courts -did-, in the '70s). But today, users at a much smaller and more individual scale are the target of infringement lawsuits, and if the statutes haven't been updated, legal analyses could at least take that into account.
Judge Evans' decision in the District Court, while taking some unusual tacks, was in some ways more on track to provide clarity to the actual individuals who have to make assessments about fair use in instructional contexts. The 11th Circuit opinion takes us (and her, my goodness I don't envy the review on remand) further away from that.
But perhaps legislative reform is a more appropriate path for developing clarity for end-users. (Ha! I crack myself up.)
- I sort of feel like factor 1 either intertwines with factor 4, -or- factor 3, but both? Really?? (p. 82)
- Oh, wait, almost forgot. I don't like that this opinion reverses the lower court's opinion. It would've been nice to have a stronger affirmation of educational fair use. Further legal opinions (if they come) are likely to range from a lot to a bit more limiting. But that's not 100% clear, and they may not come.
It is difficult to predict what will happen next. This is not a slam-dunk case for the publishers, though it does favor them more than the first District Court opinion. Remand and review will require a great deal of time and resources, again, and the parties may feel that it's not worth that investment, and settle. If so, we won't get more rulings from courts. If they don't settle, we'll get another District Court ruling, different from, but perhaps not entirely overturning, the previous one. And perhaps another appeal after that, and...
In the meantime, it may also be worth remembering that none of this legal interpretation is binding law outside of the 11th Circuit (Alabama, Florida, Georgia.) In other states, we can look to these opinions for guidance, but we can also explore different paths.