Limitations and exceptions

Are getting a lot of attention lately. This is the phrase, used primarily in international copyright discussions and negotiations, to refer to the many compulsory licenses, declarations that an apparently infringing act will not be considered infringement, and restrictions on when a copyright can be claimed that make copyright material usable, to a degree, by the rest of us. Without limitations and exceptions, the exclusive rights granted by copyright would frustrate copyright’s fundamental purpose to encourage progress and creativity. It is one thing to guarantee a financial incentive for intellectual creation, but if that creation cannot be used by others, innovation grinds to a halt.

That is why so much of the Copyright Act is dedicated to exceptions to the exclusive rights. In the Government Printing Office edition, over one-third of the text is dedicated to sections 107 through 122, which incorporate most, but not all, of the limitations and exceptions.

In international treaties, the limitations and exceptions to copyright are supposed to be subject to a “three-step test” which has its origin in the Berne Convention, initial adopted by many countries (but not the US) in 1886. The US joined Berne in 1988 and oversaw its incorporation into international trade law in 1994. As it now stands, the three step reads like this:

Members shall confine limitations and exceptions to exclusive rights to certain special cases which do not conflict with a normal exploitation of the work and do not unreasonably prejudice the legitimate interests of the rights holder. (Art. 9(2) of Berne and Art. 13 in the TRIPs Agreement)

It is an interesting question whether some of the exceptions in the US Copyright Act violate this three step test – does fair use apply only to special cases, for instance, or conflict with normal exploitation of a work? The recent emphasis our courts have placed on transformative use as the sine qua non of fair use may be a direct reaction to this three part test.

So far, only one provision of the US Copyright Act has been found to violate the TRIPs three step test – the section 110(5)(B) exemption for businesses that allows installed TV sets and radios to “publicly perform” copyrighted works for patrons of those establishments. As interesting as that case is, the discussion of how fair use fits into this framework is even more interesting and important. A recent blog post by William Patry on this subject arguing that fair use does not violate the three step test is a great primer about this discussion.

Other attention to limitations and exceptions include this discussion of a proposal made to the World Intellectual Property Organization for a formal discussion and agreement about limitations and exceptions, something the US says it is not ready for. Closer to home, of course, is the recently released report by the Section 108 Study Group, proposing changes in the US copyright exception that permits library preservation work and interlibrary loan.

Most exacting, from my point of view, is this full-day conference being held at Duke Law School this Saturday on the topic of “Copyright Limitations and Exceptions: from access to research to transformative use.” There will be an exciting group of scholars from the US and European here to discuss the various issues and problems, with a focus on practical strategies to encourage creative uses of digital content. I hope any readers who are close to the North Carolina Research Triangle will consider attending this conference, and that those who cannot will look for podcasts, which are often posted by the Center for the Study of the Public Domain.