“Fair Use” Just Isn’t Fair!

By Brian Taylor Goldstein, Esq. Dear Law and Disorder: I have read your clearly stated articles about mechanical use and rights.  What about “fair use”? Aren’t there specific scenarios where permission is not needed to use a recording of someone else’s music? Beware of what you ask. You are about to open a box whereupon a thousand nasties will fly out! Now that you have been duly warned…. Copyright Law gives the owner of a copyright the exclusive right to perform, edit, arrange, or reproduce a protected work in copies or recordings, as well as the exclusive right to authorize others to do so. Anyone who copies, performs, or records a protected work without the copyright owner’s permission, even including small excerpts, is guilty of copyright infringement. Fair Use is a legal doctrine whereby certain usages of a particular work “may” be considered permissible without the copyright owner’s permission, if the purpose for which the work was used is determined to be “fair”, such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, research, and parody. As the U.S. Copyright Act is intended, albeit arguably, to afford the maximum protection of copyright owners and the creators of protected works, it does not set forth specific usages that are inherently “fair.” Rather, the analysis and determination of what constitutes Fair Use is left entirely to a judge to decide in her or her sole discretion. In other words, should you decide to use any portion of a protected work without the owner’s permission, you won’t know whether your use is a permissible Fair Use or a prohibited infringement until after the copyright owner files a lawsuit claiming an infringement and everyone goes to court, makes arguments, and the judge decides. The only guidance given by the U.S. Copyright Act is the following four-part test which judges use in making the Fair Use analysis and determining whether or not a particular use is “fair”: (1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for non-profit 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. As you may imagine, the application of these factors is both highly fact specific and highly subjective. Any one factor can tip the balance for or against Fair Use. More significantly, just because one judge determines a specific usage to be Fair Use within a specific scenario does not mean that a different judge will determine that a similar usage will be Fair Use in a similar scenario. Determinations can, and do, change from judge to judge. Case law is filled with conflicting examples of recordings where one judge ruled that a specific usage of a melody was a parody (Fair Use) and another judge in another state said a similar use of a different melody was satire (not Fair Use). Similarly, judges have ruled the use of as little as thirty seconds to be an infringement and usage of entire works to be Fair Use. Essentially, this means that Fair Use is an exception, or defense, to a claim of infringement, not a right in and of itself. To be fair, there are many legal scholars who would argue, correctly, that Fair Use is not a mere defense, but is, in fact, an important right that balances copyright law with the First Amendment and that the current system gives far too much power to wealthy copyright owners who can use the mere threat of lawsuits to quash any usage of their works, even usage that might legitimately constitute Fair Use. I don’t necessarily disagree with this position. However, it’s more aspirational than reflective of the current realities that you and I have to deal with. Until Congress comes up with better guidelines (and the likelihood that Congress can “come up” with much of anything these days is slim), we are stuck with the current system and all its inherent flaws and inconsistencies. Despite the distinctions between Fair Use and infringement being uncertain and difficult to define, there are, nonetheless, a few certainties which you can depend upon: There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission. Acknowledgement of the source of the copyrighted material does not constitute Fair Use and is not a substitute for obtaining permission where permission is required. Just because something is used by a non-profit and/or used for “education” does not mean its “fair.” Materials you find on the Internet is neither inherently public domain nor Fair Use. Just because you do not sell anything, does not make your use of someone else’s work Fair Use. At the very least, when determining whether or not using someone else’s work without permission might be Fair Use, take only the smallest amount of a copyrighted work necessary to accomplish your goal of criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, research, and/or parody. As a general rule, the more you take, the less likely your use will be considered “fair.” It is also reasonable to assume that if you are using any part of a copyrighted work for promoting or marketing your services or performances, or your organization’s services or performances, even if no copies are being sold, it probably IS NOT fair use. Of course, the safest course is always to get permission from the copyright owner before using copyrighted material. __________________________________________________________________ For additional information and resources on this and other legal and business issues for the performing arts, visit ggartslaw.com To ask your own question, write to lawanddisorder@musicalamerica.org. All questions on any topic related to legal and business issues will be welcome. However, please post only general questions or hypotheticals. GG Arts Law reserves the right to alter, edit or, amend questions to focus on specific issues or to avoid names, circumstances, or any information that could be used to identify or embarrass a specific individual or organization. All questions will be posted anonymously. __________________________________________________________________ THE OFFICIAL DISCLAIMER: THIS IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE! The purpose of this blog is to provide general advice and guidance, not legal advice. Please consult with an attorney familiar with your specific circumstances, facts, challenges, medications, psychiatric disorders, past-lives, karmic debt, and anything else that may impact your situation before drawing any conclusions, deciding upon a course of action, sending a nasty email, filing a lawsuit, or doing anything rash!

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.