Category Archives: Copyright Issues and Legislation

What is “extended” about Extended Collective Licensing?

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the new proposals sent out for comment by the Copyright Office about orphan works and mass digitization, and numerous library groups are drafting responses to the Notices of Inquiry as I write.  Part of what the CO proposes in regard to mass digitization is an “extended collective licensing” scheme, which prompts the question in my title.

Before turning to that, however, let’s look a moment at the whole picture of what the CO is suggesting here.  The proposals address the overall problem of orphan works.  Unfortunately they do not do so by taking steps to reduce the number of orphan works or to make finding rights holders easier.  Instead, they create significant new obstacles for users who want to make use of an orphan work.  If you are looking to use just one or two works for which a rights holder cannot be determined, the CO wants you to go through a poorly-defined process of making a “reasonably diligent” search AND they will insist that you register your use.  If this seems backwards, that is because it is.  The goal here seems to be to discourage use, and hence new creation, by placing the onus on the user rather than the rights holder to make themselves known.  The excuse for such lousy policy would probably be the prohibition of formalities in the Berne Convention, but other countries have adopted voluntary registries for rights holders. Our Copyright Office, however, has been blinded by staring into the brilliance of Hollywood for so long, and can only see copyright on their terms.  Hence the necessity of burdening users who, we know, are significant threats to the “creativity” of the music and movie companies.

Alongside this proposal for how to deter use of individual orphan works is a grander scheme to deter mass digitization projects, called extended collective licensing.  So what does “extended” mean in this context?  A normal collective licensing scheme means that rights holders get together and create a collective organization to administer the rights that they own.  Such organizations are usually inefficient and sometimes prone to corruption, but there is nothing inherently wrong with the idea behind them.  They could, if done well, increase efficiency for both rights holders and users (that is, for new creators).  When a collective licensing scheme is extended, however, it means that licenses are being sold for rights not held by any of the members of the collective society.  That is the point about orphan works — a collective society representing the traditional content industries would sell licenses for the use of works for which they do not, by definition, hold the rights.  They would collect licensing fees “on behalf” of the unknown owners.  According to the proposed pilot, such a collecting agency would have an obligation to look for the correct rights holders in materials for which the collect fees, but there is no indication of how they would do this and no indication that a significant success rate could be achieved.  After a certain period of time, of course, the money collected would belong to the usual suspects; they would reap where they did not sow.

So what does “extended” really mean here?  If the situation were reversed, the content industries themselves would have a perfect word for it.  They would call it theft, or piracy.  Traditional rights holders love to use analogies with real property, claiming, ad nauseum, that downloading an unlicensed movie is equivalent to driving off in someone else’s car.  Now they are proposing, through the Copyright Office, to sell other peoples’ property for their own benefit.  Wouldn’t the “extended” analogy then be me trying to sell a car parked in front of my house, just because I do not know who the owner is?  It seems that in this context, “extended” just means parasitic — claiming a unjust and undeserved benefit from someone else’s labor.

Economists, of course, have less harsh, but no less pejorative, terms for this sort of arrangement.  One is “rent seeking,” which refers to efforts to gain a profit without making any reciprocal contribution to society by creating value.  When a company records and distributes a song or an album, and collects money for it, that is a normal economic exchange — value for value.  But when Warner Music Group continues to collect fees for the use of “Happy Birthday to You” long after any incentive for creativity is being fostered and, apparently, long after the rights have been abandoned, that is pure rent seeking — the pursuit of an undeserved profit without a normal exchange of value.  ECL is a similar exercise in rent-seeking, asking, that is, to benefit from the labors of unknown others without the obligation to provide value in exchange.

Another economic term is relevant here — deadweight loss.  Taxation is often held to be responsible for deadweight loss, when, because of taxes, it becomes too expensive to make or sell some good.  In that situation, the manufacture will stop making the good, and society will lose all the potential benefits — no goods and no tax revenue.  Deadweight loss.  In the case of extended collective licensing, the risk of deadweight loss, and the analogy to a tax, is the same.  ECL is a form of tax on using orphan works.  The revenue from that tax will have no benefit in providing an incentive for further creation, because it will not go to the creators who made the works in the first place.  But a requirement to pay such an unproductive tax will certainly deter many digitization projects that could make rare historic materials available for research, study and teaching.  Thus productivity is lost without the benefits of an economic incentive.  It is, truly, a lose-lose situation.

Can this gulf be bridged?

Litigants in court cases often disagree sharply about the law and its application to the facts, so it is probably not a surprise that the briefs filed in the District Court’s re-examination of its ruling in the Georgia State copyright infringement trial should see the issues in such starkly different terms.

If you read the publishers’ brief, the 11th Circuit decision that sent the case back to the District Court changed everything, and every one of those 70 excerpts found to be fair use at trial now must be labeled infringement.  This is absurd, of course, and I don’t actually believe that the publishers expect, or even hope, to win the point.  They want a new ruling that they can appeal.  In my opinion the publisher strategy has now shifted from an effort to “win” the case, as they understand what winning would mean, to a determination to keep it going, in order to profit from ongoing uncertainty in the academic community (and, possibly, to spend so much money that GSU is forced to give up).

On the other hand, the brief from Georgia State, filed last Friday, argues that all 70 of those challenged excerpts are still fair use.  It seems likely that the actual outcome will be somewhere in the middle, and, to be fair to them, GSU does recognize this, by making a concession the publishers never make.  For a number of excerpts where a digital license was shown to be available at the time of the trial, GSU argues that the available licenses were not “reasonable” because they force students to pay based on what they are getting access to, whether or not the specific excerpt is ever actually used.  This is an interesting argument, tracking a long-standing complaint in academic libraries.  If the court accepts it, it would dramatically restructure the licensing market.  But GSU also seems to recognize that this is a stretch, and ends several of its analyses of specific excerpts by saying that the specific use “should be found to be fair if the Court finds the licensing scheme unreasonable, and unfair if the Court finds the licensing scheme reasonable.”  So it seems GSU is prepared for what I believe is the most likely outcome of this reconsideration on remand — a split between fair uses and ones that are not fair that is different than the original finding — probably with some more instances of infringement — but still a “split decision.”

The availability of licenses is one of the interesting issues in these briefs.  The publisher plaintiffs now argue that licenses were available, back in 2009, for those excerpts where the judge said no licenses were “reasonably available.”  They are continuing to try to introduce new evidence to this effect; which is something GSU vigorously opposes.  But those of us who have been involved in e-reserves for a while remember clearly that such licenses were not available at all through the CCC from Cambridge University Press and only occasionally from Oxford.  So what is this new evidence (which the publishers’ brief says was not offered before because they were so surprised that it was being requested)?  It is an  affidavit from a VP at the CCC, and my best guess is that it would argue that licenses were “reasonably available” because it was possible, through the CCC system, to send a direct request to the publisher in those instances where standard licenses for digital excerpts were not offered.  GSU argues that the evidence gathering phase of the case is over, a ruling about licenses has been made and affirmed by the Court of Appeals, and the issue settled.  A lot will depend on how Judge Evans views this issue; so far she has ruled against admitting new evidence.

Another controversy, about which I wrote before, involves whose incentive is at stake.  The Court of Appeals wrote a lengthy discussion of the incentive for authors to write, and its importance for the fundamental purpose of copyright.  To this they appended an odd sentence that says they are “primarily concerned… with [publisher’s] incentive to publish.”  The publishers, of course, hang a lot of weigh on this phrase, and take it out of context to do so.  GSU, on their side, make a rather forced argument intended to limit the impact of the sentence.  Neither side can admit what I believe is the truth here: that that one sentence was inserted into an opinion where it does not fit because doing so was a condition of the dissenting judge for keeping his opinion as a “special concurrence” rather than the dissent it really was.  If I am right, this compromise served the publishers well, since they can now cite the phrase from the actual opinion of the Court; it is seldom useful to cite a dissent, after all.  So the publishers quote this phrase repeatedly and use it to argue that all of the factors really collapse into the fourth factor, and that any impact at all, no matter how small, on their markets or potential markets effectively eliminates fair use.  Authors, and the reasons that academic authors write books and articles, do not appear in the publishers’ analysis, as, indeed, they could not if the argument for publisher hegemony over scholarship is to be maintained.

GSU, as we have already seen, takes a more balanced approach.  For the first factor, they discount the publishers’ attempt to make “market substitution” a touchstone even at that point in the analysis, and focus instead on the 11th Circuit’s affirmation that non-profit educational use favors fair use even when transformation is not found.  The GSU brief fleshes this out nicely by discussing the purpose of copyright in relationship to scholarship and teaching.  On the second factor, GSU discusses author incentives directly, which in my opinion is the core of the second factor, even though courts seldom recognize this.  GSU also points out that the publishers have ignored the 11th Circuit’s instruction, both here and in the third factor analysis, to apply a case-by-case inquiry to those factors; instead, the publishers assert that since every book contains some authorial opinion, the second factor always disfavors fair use, and that no amount is small enough to overcome the possibility of “market substitution.”  For their part, GSU introduces, albeit briefly, a discussion of the content of each excerpt (they are often surveys or summaries of research) for the discussion of factor two, and of the reason the specific amount was assigned, in regard to factor three.

As I said, these differences in approach lead to wildly different conclusions.  Consider these paragraphs by which each side sums up its fair use analysis for each of the excerpts at issue:

The publishers end nearly every discussion of a specific passage with these words — “On remand, the Court should find no fair use as to this work because: (1) factor one favors fair use only slightly given the nontransformativeness of the use; (2) factor two favors Plaintiffs, given the evaluative/analytical nature of the material copied; (3) factor three favors Plaintiffs because even assuming narrow tailoring to Professor _____________’s pedagogical purpose, it is counterbalanced by the threat of market substitution, especially in light of the repeated use; and (4) factor four “strongly favors Plaintiffs,” and is entitled to “relatively great weight,” which tips the balance as to this work decidedly against fair use. ”

On the other side, GSU closes many discussions (although there is more diversity in their analysis and their summations than in the publishers’) this way — “Given the teaching purpose of the use, the nature of the work and the decidedly small amount used, the fact that this use did not supplant sales of the work, and the lack of digital licensing, the use of this narrowly tailored excerpt constituted fair use.”

These are starkly contrasting visions of what is happening with these excerpts and with electronic reserves, as practiced at a great many universities, as a whole.  It will be interesting, to say the least, to see how Judge Evans decides between such divergent views.

An international perspective on statutory damages

It has been a long time since we discussed statutory damages in this space.  Statutory damages are, of course, the high monetary damages that rights holders can elect when they sue someone for infringement.  Instead of having to prove the actual harm they suffered, statutory damages presume that harm and make proving it unnecessary.  In the U.S., statutory damages can be as high as $150,000 per infringing act (see 17 U.S. Code section 504(c)).  This is a number that the content industries love to throw around, especially as part of the highly-fictionalized warning you see at the beginning of DVDs.

Back in 2009, when the recording industry was actively suing its own customers for copyright infringement because of file-sharing, statutory damages were briefly a hot topic after juries returned million-dollar verdicts against ordinary individuals for downloading files the actual value of which was less than $100.  At the time I wrote about this issue, and also linked to another lawyer’s blog post which argued that these statutory damages were likely unconstitutional.  Since the RIAA has taken its campaign for ever-stronger copyright enforcement and ever-steeper penalties in a different direction, there has been less conversation about these disproportionate penalties.

This week, however, a development in Europe has reminded me that we should not let this issue drop.  Last week Poland’s Constitutional Court released a ruling which effectively declares Poland’s own take on statutory damages a violation of the Polish Constitution.  Polish law, it seems, enacts the same policy of allowing increased damages, well beyond ordinary judicial remedies, for copyright infringement with a provision that allows tripling of the “respective remuneration that would have been due at the time of claiming it in exchange for the rights holder’s consent for the use of the work” (see Article 79 of the English translation of Poland’s copyright law here, on the WIPO site).  What this essentially says is that triple the actual harm done (the amount the rights holder would have been due) can be awarded as a form of statutory damages.  And the Polish Constitutional Court has now decided that that provision must be changed because it violates a constitutional provision ensuring equality of protection for property ownership.  It seems they are concerned that the Polish copyright law gives a level of protection to copyrighted property that is much greater than other forms of property.

It is interesting to compare this situation to what we find in U.S. law.  We do not, of course, have the same provision about equal protection for copyright ownership in our Constitution.  The Constitutional case against statutory damages is made more on the grounds of due process, where the damages are so in excess of the harm that they are unreasonable, out of proportion, and unfair to defendants.  Still, there is intuitive sense to the idea that copyrighted works are protected far more comprehensively and stringently than most other kinds of property,  If this is true in Poland, and the Polish Court thinks it is, it is certainly even more the case in the U.S.

Consider two points.  First, in the Jamie Thomas file sharing case, the relationship between the actual harm — it would have cost about $24 for her to buy the songs at issue — and the 1.9 million dollar verdict against her, was much more disproportional than the triple damages that concerned the Polish court.  If a factor of 3 was too much for the Polish court to accept, a multiplier of nearly 800,000 ought to shock every U.S. court and every U.S. citizen.  Second, it is important to notice the different types of parties involved in the Polish case; it involved a cable TV network that apparently rebroadcast some films without a license.  So corporate entities were involved, and the Polish Court still felt that tripling the damages was unfair.  Yet in the U.S. we have allow grossly more disproportionate damages to be awarded against private citizens.

The content industry often looks to Europe and to other international laws and agreements they can use to convince U.S. lawmakers to increase protection for copyrighted works.  Here we have an international court pointing the other way; showing us in the U.S. how out of whack our copyright law has become in the area of statutory damages.  Something tells me this will not be an example cited by the MPAA or the U.S. Trade Representative.  But as Congress and the Copyright Office discusses reforming the copyright law, this finding from the Constitutional Court of Poland should shame us into looking at statutory damages here in America and recognizing that this is a problem in desperate need of remedy.

 

This is a solution?

Ever since it appeared, I knew I should write about this new report concerning  orphan works that the Copyright Office issued earlier this month.  But, to be honest, I have been on vacation, and have not had a chance to read the full report yet, only excerpts.  Fortunately, on Monday Mike Masnick from Techdirt posted about the report and absolutely nailed it.  So I have little to add, and simply want to direct readers to Mike’s post.

As Mike observes, the new CO report would mostly make a serious problem worse, in that it would make the use of orphan works more difficult rather than less.  The idea of creating a registry for users to register their proposed use is positively Kafkaesque; the real need is to be able to better identify rights holders, not users.  So why not provide incentives for rights holders to register, rather than creating a new registry that will probably not be used, since it is so counter-intuitive and will be unknown to the vast majority of putative users?

The Techdirt post correctly notes that the problem of orphan works increased exponentially after the U.S. made two changes in its law — the elimination of formalities and the extension of the copyright term of protect to life plus 70 years.  These changes were made because the U.S. joined the Berne Convention and other international treaties on copyright in the 1980s, so reversing them would be very difficult.  Still, the problem is world-wide, so maybe someday sanity will prevail at the WIPO and these issues will be addressed directly, instead of taking a kind of backwards approach that tries to solve a problem without addressing its root causes, which has the result of making things worse.  See the suggestions I made several years ago for solving the “Berne Problem” here and here.

The most troubling aspect of the Copyright Office’s new report is the disdain with which it treats fair use.  The U.S. is actually in a better position as far as uses of orphan works are concerned than most nations  because our judges were wise enough to create this doctrine over 150 years ago.  But today’s Copyright Office thinks it knows better; it believes that fair use is “of limited utility” in solving the orphan works problem.  Instead, we need more bureaucratic apparatus.  Worse, to get to this position, the CO presents the HathiTrust case, with its strong affirmation of fair use, as being about “the digitization of millions of non-orphaned works” (p.42).  This is ridiculous, of course; the HathiTrust corpus contains both orphan works and works for which rights holders can be identified.  The CO seems to take the position that since specific uses of orphan works were not ultimately adjudicated in the HathiTrust case, that case is not relevant to the application of fair use to the orphan works problem. So although the report does recommend that any legislative “solution” to the orphan works problem should preserve the users’ ability to rely on fair use, the CO does not seem to feel that fair use is very helpful.  But that simply reflects the prejudice that the CO has about fair use, a prejudice that makes them an unreliable guide to copyright law in the U.S.

Learning how fair use works

How many cases about fair use have been decided in the U.S. since the doctrine was first applied by Justice Story in 1841?  Take a minute to count; I’ll wait.

If you came up with at least 170, the Copyright Office agrees with you.  Last week they announced a fascinating new tool on the CO website, an index of fair use cases.  That index contains summaries of approximately 170 cases, along with a search tool.  The introductory message, however, acknowledges that the index is not complete, so those of you who thought there were more than 170 cases are almost certainly correct.

This index is potentially a very useful tool, and it also raises some interesting questions.  I want to consider the questions first, than discuss how the new fair use index might be used by someone who wanted to learn more about how fair use works (which, by the way, is one of the avowed purposes behind its development).

Coverage is the obvious first question, and, as I said, the CO acknowledges that it is incomplete.  Specifically, it seems heavily weighted toward more recent cases.  There are only 11 cases listed in the index dating to before 1978, and two older cases (1940 and 1968) that are presented in my law school casebook on copyright as important fair use precedents are not included.  So it looks like there are some pretty significant gaps, which one hopes the Copyright Office will address as it continues to develop this tool.

By the way, the issue of continuing development also brings up the question of why the C.O. thought this was a worthwhile investment. It looks useful, to be sure, but there are other sources for similar data, so it is a bit curious that the C.O. chose this among all its potential priorities.

To return to the issue of coverage, it is always important to ask which specific cases were chosen and how they are characterized.  Of the 170 cases, there are 78 for which the result is listed as “Fair use not found,” and 64 in which the C.O. says that fair use was found.  The remaining 29 are listed as “Preliminary ruling, mixed result or remand.”  This last category is rather unhelpful.  For example, the Authors Guild v. HathiTrust case is listed this way, even though it was a strong affirmation of fair use and the remand involved a fairly unimportant issue of standing.  Even more surprising is the fact that this “mixed result” tag is applied to Campbell v. Acuff Rose Music, the “Oh Pretty Women” case from the Supreme Court that is at the heart of modern fair use jurisprudence.  Again, this was a clear fair use win; the case was remanded only because that is what the Supreme Court usually does when it reverses a Court of Appeals’ decision.  So the representation of the holdings is technically accurate, it seems, but not as helpful as it might be in actually focusing on the fair use aspect; while some “mixed result” case genuinely were that — fair use was found on one issue but not for another — many of the remanded cases actually did involve a clear yea or nay about fair use, and it would be more helpful to categorize them that way.

A particularly useful feature of this index is the ability to limit the listings by jurisdiction (the Appellate Circuits) and by topic.  For example, limited to just cases out of the Fourth Circuit, where I reside, I find that the Court has ruled on seven fair uses case and upheld fair use in six of them.  The seventh was one of those genuinely mixed results, where one challenged use was held to be fair and another was not.

If we limit the subject area of the cases to those labeled “Education/Scholarship/Research,” fair use seems to fare better than it does overall.  In that category of 42 total cases there are 18 findings in favor of fair use and 16 rejections.  Of the remaining 8 mixed results, at least two of them — the HathiTrust Case and the GSU case — should be seen as affirmations of fair use, even if the parameters of that use are still unsettled in GSU.  So the impression many of us have that educational and scholarly uses are a bit more favored in the fair use analysis than other types of cases seems to be confirmed.

Things get more interesting when we look just at the Supreme Court in this index, and the issue of how cases are chosen is again highlighted.  The index shows four fair use cases, with one holding in favor of fair use (Sony v. Universal Pictures), one mixed result (Campbell, as discussed above), and two rejections of fair use (Harper v. Nation and Stewart v. Abend).  This last case, Stewart v. Abend, is actually almost never treated as a fair use case; while fair use was dismissed as a potential defense in the case, the real issue involved assignments of copyright and who could exercise the renewal right that existed at that time.  And this case was remanded, just as Campbell was.  So it is odd that Campbell, with its central finding in favor of fair use, is shown as a mixed result, while Stewart v. Abend, where fair use was tangential and there was also a remand, is tagged as a rejection of fair use.  This suggests at least an unconscious bias against fair use findings.

A different listing of Supreme Court fair use cases, on the IP Watchdog site, includes several additional cases — nine, in all — but does not list Stewart v. Abend as one of them. Several of the cases included by IP Watchdog do not seem to me to really focus on fair use, so I am not saying that the C.O. has under-reported the cases.  But the very different lists do suggest that it is a surprisingly subjective undertaking just to identify the cases that should be included in a fair use index.

Finally, the analysis provided in the C.O.’s case summaries needs to be considered carefully.  To take one example, for the recent case of Kienitz v. Scoonie Nation, about which I wrote earlier this year, the short note about the holding ignores the thing that may be most significant about the case — the reluctance of Judge Frank Easterbrook to apply a “transformation” analysis to the fair use question (HT to my friend and colleague David Hansen for pointing this out).  Again, this is not necessarily a problem, and the case summary of Kienitz at the Stanford Copyright & Fair Use site has a similar synopsis, but it is a reminder that these projects are always created by individuals with specific perspectives, viewpoints and limitations.

Even with all these caveats, I think the Copyright Office has created a useful tool, which can be used by those interested to learn a lot about how fair use is applied, especially by looking at the different categories.  The Stanford site, linked above, and especially its own, much shorter list of cases, might usefully be used alongside the C.O. index.  The Stanford descriptions are  very tightly focused on the fair use issue, so reading them in conjunction with the C.O. summaries, with their attention to procedural matters that sometimes obscure the fair use holding, might produce a more balanced approach.

In any case, this new tool form the Copyright Office, and some of the tools that predate it, remind us that the best way to understand fair use, and to become comfortable with it, is too look closely at the cases, both in the aggregate and individually.  This C.O. database offers a statistical perspective, as well as the ability to focus on parody, or music, or format-shifting, while the Stanford summaries emphasize in a few words the core of the fair use analysis.  Both point the interested reader to full opinions, where the analysis can be understood in the context of all the facts.  Combined in this way, these resources offer a terrific opportunity for librarians, authors, and others to dig deeply into the nuances of fair use.

Copyright follies

The joy of being a copyright specialist is the amazing array of cool, beautiful, and profound things that make up the raw material of what we do.  It is a privilege to be granted even a tiny window into the creativity of the many people we get to work with.  And even the cases we only read about share in this astonishing diversity.

But let’s be honest.  There is also a lot of nonsense in the copyright world.  The idea of “owning” creative expression just makes some folks go a little nuts, and some pretty absurd claims get made about copyright (monkey selfies, anyone?).  So here is a quick review of some recent bizarre cases, although by the end of it we will have the opportunity to review some important principles about copyright law.

Perhaps a good place to begin is with the claim by descendants of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joesph Goebbels that they are entitled to licensing fees for quotes from Goebbels’ diaries that are used in a new biography of him.  One of the strangest things about this case is that it may well be a valid claim, although there is some dispute over who actually is the copyright holder, since most assets of the Nazi leaders were seized by the Allies after the war.  But the very fact that it is being raised suggests some interesting questions.  How much money would make it worthwhile to publicly identify oneself as a descendant of one of the worlds most vilified war criminals, an architect of the “final solution?”  And will there be a fair use/fair dealing defense raised, as the blog Techdirt has suggested?  It certainly seems like we should avoid a situation where a war criminal’s family would be in a position to censor a biography of him, which would be one possibility if they were found to hold copyright.  Random House seems mostly to assert the “no money to a war criminal” defense against the claim, but it is worth remembering that copyright is not only about money, it is about control.

Just before publishing this post I saw an excellent analysis of the issue of royalties for ex-Nazi’s or these descendants here, in Inside Higher Ed.

Another development this past week was the filing by John Deere in regard to a proposed exception to DMCA anti-circumvention rules in which they claimed that the software in a tractor is only licensed to a consumer, not owned by them.  It was inevitable that such a claim would be made eventually, and I predicted it somewhat eerily in this post from last year (substituting John Deere for Ford).  John Deere wants to sell you a tractor, and they are fine with you using it as you wish, unless you decide to modify the software.  At that point they assert that you, the purchasers, only have an implied license to use the software and that anti-circumvention rules would prevent modification, and should continue to do so.  What makes this claim more dangerous than absurd is that it raises the idea of new limitations on what we mean by ownership.  We thought that the doctrine of First Sale was sufficient to protect the traditional idea of ownership in regard to copyrighted material, but the DMCA, and the desire of some companies to suppress competition, has changed that.  What new and un-imagined restrictions on my use of the tractor in my driveway might be down the line from John Deere? We are getting ever closer to the point where our courts will need to develop clear guidelines about what it means to own a machine that incorporates copyrighted material.  In the meantime, I would think twice before I “bought” a John Deere tractor; I like to know what I am getting for my money, and John Deere seems to think they can upend my reasonable expectations whenever it suits them.

Most readers are likely already familiar with the next of the follies I want to discuss: the claim made on behalf of the bystander who filmed the police shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina that he, the bystander, is entitled to a licensing fee — apparently as much as $10,000 — every time the media replays the video.  There are two especially troubling aspects of this claim.  The first is the absurd misunderstanding that leads to a statement that the fair use “period” has “expired” for this video.  There is not a time limit on fair use, of course.  It seems to me that a few people are confusing fair use, a statutory boundary on copyright that lasts as long as the rights do, with the so-called “hot news” doctrine.  The latter was the creation of courts, is of uncertain application, and was largely preempted by the 1976 copyright act.  In fact, the hot news doctrine was a limit on the exclusivity that a news organization could have over its report of newsworthy events, so the doctrine acted in the reverse of how it is being asserted, under the wrong name, in the Scott shooting video case.  Fair use continues to exist in spite of the lapse of time, and only a very poorly-advised news organization would accept this idiotic argument.

Which brings me to the most troubling aspect of this case, the apparent fact that the New York Times agrees that fair use can expire.  According to the Forbes report linked above, the NYT claimed that “copyright experts” agreed that this alleged fair use period has passed.  They quote a lawyer for the Copyright Clearance Center (hardly a disinterested party) whose argument, while using temporal language, can only sensibly refer to the specific conditions surrounding a particular use (i.e. whether the use is for the purpose of news reporting or not).  I wonder if the CCC can cite any case law for this proposition that fair use can expire?  If not, then they and the NY Times are just spreading FUD which, at least for the Times, is unexpected and reprehensible.

Finally, I want to briefly comment on this story about a former researcher who is suing his former post-doctoral adviser at Brown University for having published an article that they apparently wrote together without giving authorship credit to the former post-doc.  There are complicated details to the case, and I would not like to offer an opinion about who is right or wrong in the overall dispute.  But the controversy raises one issue that I do want to comment on: the situation between joint authors.  So much of the scholarship produced today is written by multiple authors — I recently saw an article with 102 listed authors — that it is increasingly important to understand a couple of points.

First, to qualify as a joint author in the copyright sense, each author must contribute protectable expression to the preparation of the overall work.  That means that some, at least, of those 102 authors are not co-owners of the copyright because their contributions did not involve the creation of protectable expression.  We don’t worry too much about this distinction in the academic world, but it could be an issue if a dispute over publication arises, as it has in the Brown University case described above.

Second, it is important to understand that each co-owner of the copyright, each joint author, is entitled to exercise the rights in the copyright bundle independently.  That means that one author can conceivably authorize publication without the permission of the other authors, as seems to have happened in this situation.  On the copyright issue, at least, it seems clear that the post-doc cannot object to publication simply because the article he worked on with others was published by one of them without his knowledge or consent.  The author who published would be obligated to account to all co-authors for any profits from the publication, but it would not be infringement to simply publish the article without consent from the others.

This precise situation, also involving a dispute about how authors were listed, was considered by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 1987 in a case called Weinstein v. the University of Illinois, and the panel of judges, two of whom were themselves well-known academics, came to the same conclusion — no infringement when one co-owner of the copyright publishes without permission from the others.  So whatever the other details are in the Brown case, a copyright claim against the former adviser from one of his co-authors is unlikely to be successful.  This is why it is so important (especially in cases like this involving commercial sponsorship) for all of the authors to agree together about the use and publication of any intellectual property that arises from the project.  That sort of agreement, worked out calmly and in advance of any conflict, is still the best way to avoid being involved in any copyright follies.

Steps toward a new GSU ruling

It looks more and more like we will get a new ruling from the trial court in the Georgia State case about what is or is not fair use for digital course readings.  The case, of course, was reversed and remanded to the trial court after the publishers appealed the initial decision to the 11th Circuit, with instructions to produce a new opinion consistent with the Court of Appeals ruling.    The publisher plaintiffs then asked the trial court to reopen the record in the case and apply the putative new fair use analysis to a different, more recent, set of readings employed by the GSU faculty.  The University opposed this motion, arguing that what would amount to a whole new trial was not necessary.

Last week, District Court Judge Orinda Evans dismissed the motion to reopen the record and issued an order about briefing the court on what a new analysis of fair use for the original excerpts considered in the trial should look like.  Judge Evans wrote that “It does not make sense at this juncture to spend months, probably longer, on what considerations might govern if Plaintiffs prove they are entitled to injunctive relief by virtue of the claimed 2009 infringements.”  The motion is dismissed without prejudice, meaning that the plaintiffs can renew it at a more appropriate time, although I must admit that I do not see what that would mean if the case is to go forward on the original set of readings.

It appears that once again the publishers have failed in an effort to broaden the scope of the case beyond the item-by-item fair use analysis that has already been done and to possibly reintroduce some of the broad principles that they really want, which have so far been rejected at every stage.  Now Judge Evans has explicitly told them, in her scheduling order, that what is required is “consideration and reevaluation of each of the individual claims” in order to redetermine “in each instance… whether defendants’ use was a fair use under 17 U.S.C.  section 107.”  Her schedule for the briefs is tight, with an end of the briefing now scheduled just two and a half months from now.  Presumably we would still have a long wait while Judge Evans applies revised reasoning about fair use to each of the individual excerpts, but it looks a bit more like that is what is going to happen.

A new home for copyright?

The idea that the Copyright Office should move out of the Library of Congress was first raised some years ago by Bruce Lehman, who was, at the time, the Director of the Patent and Trademark Office.  The idea seemed to be that the Copyright Office should join the PTO as an agency within the Commerce Department.  That idea did not seem to be very well-received by many, and I had not heard of the discussion for a while.  But apparently the possibility of moving the CO is still kicking around, and last month current Registrar of Copyright Marie Pallante sent a letter about the topic to Rep. John Conyers, the Ranking Member of the House Committee on the Judiciary.  Her letter was requested after a hearing about the functions and resources of the CO held back in February.

Pallante’s letter makes interesting reading, especially if one is interested in the inside politics of Executive Branch appointments, separation of powers, and the like.  The bottom line, however, is that Registrar Pallante thinks that the Copyright Office should be separated from the Library of Congress, should not move into the Commerce Department, and should instead become an independent agency with its leader directly appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.  There has been some discussion about this letter and the ramifications of the debate among my colleagues, and I want to consider two issues that I think are of interest to a wider audience, while admitting that I am shamefully cribbing ideas from those colleagues.

The first issue is why the Copyright Office should leave the Library of Congress in the first place.  Registrar Pallante offers several reasons in her letter.  One is the claim that the Library of Congress is in a Constitutionally awkward position, since it is apparently an Executive branch agency (the Librarian is appointed by the President), but its functions, including advising Congress about copyright law, are at least partially legislative.  While I see the issue, it is not clear to me why it is more pressing for the CO than it is for other offices within the Library, including, for example, the Congressional Research Service.  Nor do I fully understand why making the CO an independent agency, with its head still appointed by the President, would solve this dilemma.  There is certainly an issue of prestige here, but I am not convinced that it is enough to justify a new Federal agency.

The other reason Pallante offers for moving out of the Library of Congress are the “operational challenges,” including staffing and pay.  All bureaucracies are difficult, of course, and rumor has it the LoC is more difficult than most these days.  But, again, it is not obvious that a new agency would necessarily be better.  Everything would depend on the personnel and the budget.  More troubling, however, are the footnotes in Pallante’s letter that refer to the “conflict of interest” between the CO and the Library, which apparently was mentioned by some witnesses during those February hearings.

Is there a conflict of interest between a library and the office that administers our national copyright policy?  If there is, what does that tell us?  To my mind, it suggests that our copyright policy has gotten out-of-line.  We may be developing an approach that sees copyright as a trade regulation that protects specific industries, not as a policy decision about how best to ensure the continuous creation of new works of knowledge and culture.

This concern was clearly raised during the hearings, where Rep. Zoe Lofgren challenged the assumption that the Copyright Office was no longer a good fit with the Library of Congress by suggesting that over the years, the librarians have been better at understanding copyright than some staff at the CO.  To her credit, in her letter Pallante does not endorse the idea of moving the CO to Commerce, where the symbolism of copyright as a sort of trade regulation would be even stronger.  But I would argue that our predecessors knew what they were doing when they centralized copyright services inside the Library of Congress.  Libraries epitomize the social benefits that copyright is supposed to support, and the “optics” of moving the Office, at least, would inevitably undermine that long-standing commitment to the public good.

In fact, if the CO was located in the Commerce Department, as my colleague Brandon Butler points out, it would have to consider all aspects of commerce related to copyright, including those industries that depend on fair use and other copyright exceptions.  The wrong-headed narrative about the competition between the content industry and the technology sector, with the former held up as copyright dependents and the latter as modern-day pirates, would be harder to sustain.  The unfortunate possibility exists that the CO’s desire for independence represents a desire to become even less balanced in its approach than it has been in the past, focusing entirely on its perceived role as enforcer of rules that protect Hollywood from the threatening innovations of Silicon Valley.  An office in the Commerce Department would be less able to take sides.

In terms of rationale and purpose, the Library of Congress is a good fit for the Copyright Office, even if the CO does not, under its current leadership, recognize this.  If a new home is really necessary, Butler makes the wonderful suggestion that the Department of Education should be considered.  The DoE, more than Commerce and maybe even more than the Library of Congress, could refocus copyright policy on the reason we have these laws in the first place — to promote the progress of knowledge and science.  If we lose track of that purpose, it becomes an open question whether we need the law or the CO at all.

Listening to Lessig

Like many other attendees, I was pleased when I saw that the closing keynote address for this year’s Association of College and Research Libraries Conference was to be given by Professor Larry Lessig of Harvard.  But, to be honest, my excitement was mingled with a certain cynicism.  I have heard Lessig speak before, and I am afraid I worried that I would be listening to essentially the same lecture again.

My suspicion was not wholly unwarranted.  In part I think it is the fault of Lessig’s instantly recognizable lecture style.  It is energetic and entertaining, but because its rhythms and conventions are so idiosyncratic, I think it may flatten the message a little bit.

In any case, I sat down in the ballroom of the Oregon Convention Center on Saturday with somewhat mixed expectations.  But what I did not expect was for Lessig to begin his talk by acknowledging that all his public lectures were really the same.  Had he read my mind?  No, his point was a little different.  Over the years, he told us, he has had three major themes – political corruption, net neutrality, and copyright/open access.  But, he told his audience of attentive librarians, those three themes are fundamentally just one theme.  Each is about equality.  Not three themes, but only one — equality.  Equality of access to the political process is the heart of his current campaign against the corruption of our political system by the endless pursuit of money.  Equality of access to the means of communication and culture is key to the fight for net neutrality.  And equality of access to knowledge is what animates the open access movement.

So it turns out that my worry, prior to the talk, was both unfair and, in a sense, correct.  All Lessig’s lectures are very much the same, because the underlying value he is asking us to focus on is the same.

Thinking about this unity-behind-diversity in the messages about political corruption, net neutrality and open access set me thinking about the way my colleagues and I frame our advocacy for the last of those items, open access to scholarship.  Our messages, I think, tend to focus on incremental change, on the benefits to individual scholars, and on not rocking the academic boat too much.  Lessig reminded me that there are good reasons to rock a little bit harder.  Publishing in toll access journals and neglecting open access options or additional means of dissemination is not just short-sighted.  It is dumb, and it is harmful.  We need to say that occasionally.

Publishing exclusively through closed access channels is dumb because it ignores huge opportunities available that can, quite simply, make the world a better place.  And such publishing fails to take full advantage of the greatest communications revolution since the printing press.  Indeed, online toll-access deliberately breaks network technology in order to protect its outmoded and exclusionary business model.  Doing this is simply propping up the buggy whip manufactures because we are afraid of how fast the automobile might travel.  The academy is not usually this dumb, but in this case we are wasting vast amounts of money to support an obsolete technology.  I know that the promotion and tenure process is often cited as the reason for clinging to the old model, but this is simply using one outdated and inefficient system as an excuse for adhering to another such system.  Traditional modes of evaluation are breaking down as fast as traditional publishing and for the same reasons.  Hiding our heads in the sand is no solution.

More to the point, however – more to Lessig’s point – is the fact that this traditional system we are so reluctant to wean ourselves from actually hurts people.  It fosters ignorance and inequality.  It makes education more difficult for many, retards economic progress, and slows development worldwide.  As academics and librarians who by inclination and by professional responsibility should be committed to the most universal education possible, it is shameful that we cling to a system where only the rich can read our scholarship, only the privileged gain access to the raw materials of self-enlightenment.  How can a researcher studying the causes and treatments of malaria, for example, be satisfied to publish in a way that ensures that many who treat that disease around the globe will never be able to see her research?  How can an anthropologist accept a mode of publishing that limits access for the very populations he studies, so they will never be able to know about or benefit from his observations?  Why would a literary scholar writing about post-colonialist literature publish in a way that fosters the same inequalities as earlier forms of colonialism did?

In this wonderful column from Insider Higher Ed., the ever-insightful Barbara Fister writes about what we really mean when we talk about serving a community, and what we might mean by it.  She comments on the “members-only” approach to knowledge sharing that has become an accepted practice, and challenges us to rethink it.  Like Lessig, Fister is calling us to consider our core values of equality and the democratization of knowledge.  She also reminds us of how dumb – her word is wasteful – the current system is.

Perhaps the most vivid example of how subscription-based publishing fosters, and even demands, inequality is found in the ongoing lawsuit brought against a course pack publisher in India by three academic publishers.  Two of the “usual suspects” are here – Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press (joined, in the Delhi University suit, by Taylor and Francis) – and this lawsuit is even more shameful than the one brought against Georgia State.  The problem, of course, is that the books published by these modern-day colonialists are too expensive for use in India.  I once was told by a professor of IP law in India that a single textbook on trademark law cost over a month’s salary for his students.  Photocopying, whether it is authorized by Indian law or not (and that is the point at issue) is a matter of educational survival, but these publishers want to stop it.  Their rule – no one should ever learn anything without paying us – is a recipe for continued ignorance and inequality.  It is disgraceful.

I use the word colonialists in the paragraph above quite deliberately.  What we are seeing here is the exploitation of a monopoly that is imposed on a culture with the demand that people pay the developed world monopoly holders in order to make progress as a society.  We have seen this too many times before.

The thing I like best in the article linked above – the whole thing is well worth a careful read — is the brief story of how a student group in India began handing out leaflets about the lawsuit at a book fair where CUP representatives were hawking their wares.  They wanted to let people know that buying books from Oxford and Cambridge is supporting a worldwide campaign of intimidation that is aimed at reducing access to knowledge and culture.  Publishing with these presses is a form of colonial occupation that extorts from whole populations a high price to obtain the means of cultural and intellectual growth.  The reaction, of course, was predictable; the publisher summoned the police to protect themselves and others from these unpleasant truths.  But the technique has merit; perhaps we can also find ways to shame these publishers when they attend our academic or professional conference, when they send salespeople to our campuses, and when they recruit our colleagues to write and review for them.  A commitment to equality demands no less.

Copyright, Open Access, and Human Rights

The United Nations Human Rights Council is holding its 28th session this month, and one item on the agenda is discussion about a report from Farida Shaheed, who is a “Special Rapporteur” in the area of “cultural rights.”  Ms. Shaheed is a well-known Pakistani sociologist and human rights activist.  Her report is a remarkable document in many ways, with a lot of things to like for those who are concerned about the overreach of copyright laws.  There are also some points that are troubling, although, on balance, I would love to see this report get attention and action from the U.N.

In some sense, the most remarkable thing about this report is its frank recognition that intellectual property laws are in tension with the fundamental human right of access to science and culture. In only its third paragraph, the report reminds us that since at least 2005, the World Intellectual Property Organization, a U.N. agency, has been mandated (whether effectively or not) to give “renewed attention to alternative policy approaches to promote innovation and creativity without the social costs of privatization.”  In short, the WIPO is charged, whether effectively or not, to find ways to facilitate open access to science and culture.  This charge is made explicit in the recommendations, where the Special Rapporteur directly suggests that “[p]ublic and private universities and public research agencies should adopt policies to promote open access to published research, materials, and data on an open and equitable basis, especially through the adoption of Creative Commons licenses” (para. 113).

When librarians and other open access advocates discuss OA policies with their faculties, perhaps we should recognize that there is a compelling argument to be made that this is not just a “what’s best for academia and for my interests” issue, but a true human rights issue.  Ms. Shaheed’s report makes this case in a concise and compelling way.  And this point also reminds us of why open access that is achieved simply by paying the commercial publishers to release articles is not a solution, because it does not really promote equitable access.  The fees charged are too high for many authors, they are not administered in a transparent way, and, frankly, some of the publishers cannot be trusted to fulfill their end of the bargain.  Barbara Fister discussed some of these problems in more detail in her recent Inside Higher Ed blog post, called “New Predatory Publishing in Old Bottles.”  If we take open access seriously as a step toward a more democratic and equitable culture, we must embrace a wider variety of “flavors” of OA, and not assume that the “usual suspects” can do it for us.

To return to a reading of the Human Rights Council report, there are strong endorsements of the idea that cultural and scientific development depends on restraining the reach of IP protections.  The section on “Copyright policy and cultural participation” is structured around three themes that all begin with “promoting cultural participation through…” and then go on to discuss copyright limitations and exceptions, international cooperation, and open licensing.  Here are some specific recommendations that I found very encouraging:

  • In regard to negotiations that are already underway, the report endorses ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who are Blind, Visually Disabled, or Otherwise Print Disabled.  On the other hand, Ms. Shaheed expresses concern (para 19) about the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement that is currently being negotiated in secret, which is the problem that the report focuses on, calling for all such multinational agreements to be discussed in a transparent way (para 92).  Since the TPP is often defended with the claim that it will benefit developing countries, it is fascinating to see it cited as an example of a “democratic deficit in international policy making.”  From a different article, this editorial about the TPP by a U.S. Senator raises the same type of concern, and together they make a strong case against the agreement.
  • In paragraph 22 the report discusses the potential that a pervasive licensing environment can inhibit artistic self-expression and slow cultural development.
  • The report calls for the adoption of international treaties on copyright limitations and exceptions for libraries and education.  Given the current climate in the WIPO, this seems like a long shot, but is valuable in part because it calls attention to that climate, which is dominated by representatives of commercial interests (including, unfortunately, the U.S. Trade Representative).
  • On the issue of copyright limitations and exceptions, the report specifically points to fair use as a tool for allowing a more “comprehensive and adaptable” approach to unlicensed uses (para 73).  The report notes that most countries take the route of adopting exceptions for specific types of use, which provides more certainty, but adds that that approach may be inadequate in the current environment.  In general the report calls for a flexible approach to “uncompensated use of copyrighted works , in particular in contexts of income disparity, non-profit efforts, or under-capitalized artists” (para 106).  It specifically asserts, in this regard, that member states should not take a rigid approach to the so-called “three-step test” for copyright exceptions that is found in the Berne Convention (para 104), which is often used as a weapon by commercial interests against broadly applicable exceptions.
  • One of the recommendations I like best in this report, found in paragraph 107, is that states should enact laws that would prevent copyright limitations and exceptions from being overruled by contractual provisions, and protect such exceptions from excessive technological interference as well.  The UK has recently adopted the contractual part of this idea, stating that certain uses that are allowed by the law cannot be prohibited by contracts.  As I have said before, this is an idea we need to incorporate into U.S. copyright law, and it is good to see the U.N. special rapporteur endorse it so firmly.

There is an overall emphasis in the report that focuses on copyright as an authors’ right, and it is this focus that gives me some ambiguous feelings about the document.  On the one hand, I agree that a focus on authors and supporting authorship will help re-balance our approach to copyright.  Where we have most often gone wrong in this area is when we have allowed copyright discussions to focus on supporting the business models of intermediary organizations, regardless of whether or not those models really helped incentivize authors and creators.  Throughout its history, copyright has been called an authors’ right and treated like a publishers’ privilege.  Re-focusing on authors is part of restoring copyright to its proper function, and makes sense in a document about human rights.  And yet, it is also true that too much stress on author rights can also become unbalanced.  Copyright cannot benefit society unless it weighs the rights of both users and creators, especially since the former often aspire to become the latter.  Authorial control is an important part of the creative incentive, but it can easily go too far.

One troublesome area where this is a real danger is protection for “traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions” — the cultural creations of indigenous peoples.  This is an area where there have certainly been abuses, and it is not surprising to find a concern over TK and TCE, as the international community abbreviates them, in a report about IP and human rights.  Unfortunately, protection for these cultural products raises as many problems as it does solutions.  Should there be a public domain for TCEs?  If not, why not?  And who is the legitimate rights holder in traditional knowledge?  The national government?  In an article back in 2011, David Hansen explored some of these issues and found real incompatibility between traditional knowledge protections and the values that animate IP law.

So my final attitude toward this report is mixed, but still strongly positive.  I think it recommends many of the right steps toward restoring copyright and other IP rights to their proper scope and function.  It rightly places the focus on authors and on economic and cultural development.  It reminds us that all high-level copyright conversations should have a human rights perspective.  Where I have concerns, I see a chance for continued conversation.  But at least those conversations would take place with the proper grounding, if the report is taken as seriously as it deserves.