Fair use in the digital house of mirrors

Fair use in the digital house of mirrors

In today’s highly digitized world, copyright infringement actions, among others, are often brought against alleged infringers using information culled from Internet service provider addresses. While fair use defenses may exist against such suits, particularly when one is doing a music mash up, a preliminary question is whether the initial source evidence is accurate.

There exist technologies wherein users can mask themselves behind other users’ Internet service provider addresses. In this way, one can be located in Timbuktu, for example, and use an Internet service provider address of a user in the North Pole. By doing such masking, some users seek to avoid infringement lawsuits by using the address of another user, in essence leaving them with the hot infringement potato.

In prosecuting civil actions for unlawful downloads of Microsoft software, for example, it becomes imperative to understand such masking methods, and their limits. Prima facie evidence of the source of the infringement, while good for the initial stages of litigation, will evaporate upon further investigation. In some cases, a case brought without sufficient evidence of the source can, upon written documentary notice that the user wasn’t responsible for the download, such as via browser history evidence, lead to a motion for sanctions against plaintiff’s counsel for bringing a frivolous case.

Even with such evidence as to source, due attention needs to be paid to the transformative nature of the use. In digital music mash ups, for example, a sample from Mr. Bob Dylan recording can be modified, and blended into a new piece, so that the old version becomes impossible to recognize. In this case, the defendant likely has a bona fide fair use defense even when the attribution of the source is correct. Thus, in prosecuting a copyright infringement action, proper steps need to be made at the outset so that a sustainable case can be made.

The big bad wolf to the . . . rescue?

The big bad wolf to the . . . rescue?

If you work in technology, the big bad fair use wolf can be your best friend. Read below to find out why.

A few days ago, the U.S. Supreme court denied Google’s appeal from a decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit which found that source code — written instructions that run computer software — can be protected by copyright law. In so doing, the nation’s highest court left in tact a ruling by the Federal Circuit which found Google could have infringed the copyright to Oracle’s software programming platform.

To the extent Oracle’s code is original and non-functional, then it should find protection against wolves inside a nice cozy copyright house during the cold winter. That’s because this type of source code is akin to the original combinations of words that authors use as inputs into their own hardware — books, screenplays, or plays. Because these words are original expressions of perhaps unoriginal ideas, they are copyrightable subject matter. No less should be true about original non-functional source code.

Nonetheless, the copyright house isn’t impervious to the elements outside. If you copy the idea behind a copyrighted work, then you have no liability because ideas aren’t protected by copyright law — but functional ideas can be potentially patented. That’s why, when copyrighted expression is so inextricably linked with a functional idea, many federal courts will deny copyright protection to the expression, especially in the case of functional source code. Small tweaks in code inspired by not all that original — but original enough for copyright protection — source code can keep you away from the infringement line. In such a crowded market, there are only so many ways to express a functional idea, which is why courts are remiss about extending the scope of copyright protection for any one particular expression. To do otherwise would hurt innovation. No less is true in other expressive endeavors. The scope of copyright protecting less original works — such as a “me too” drip style painting inspired by the works of Jackson Pollock — is smaller than that for pioneering ones — such as an architectural design that blends, for the first time, Frank Lloyd Wright with Frank Gehry.

Even if Oracle’s source code can jump the foregoing copyright hurdles, the story doesn’t end there.The lower court has yet to decide whether Google has a fair use defense. In the end, if Oracle’s source code is original enough for copyright but not so original so as to read that protection broadly, then Google’s fair use big bad wolf will likely huff, puff, and blow over Oracle’s copyright lawsuit to the ground.

Is your design inspired or stolen?

Is your design inspired or stolen?

Are you a crook? Jonathan Adler may consider you one when you use an edited, transformed, and artistically styled sample of his pillow design to create a custom-made wallpaper design for a client. But would he be right? These days, it is getting harder to tell, but there are still guidelines that can help you navigate the sometimes murky waters separating inspiration from infringement.

To make a custom-made wallpaper design for a client, assume you copy Mr. Adler’s black vine design that was inspired by an ancient Japanese kimono vine design, and that there are many types of this vine design in the pillow market. You then transform the vines by making them look shabby and worn out, use pink instead of black, and infuse the pink with the copies of the American flag. Imagine, then, that you combine the transformed Adler design with 9/10 other types of content from elsewhere, including a starry sky design pattern from Ralph Lauren Home to make your wallpaper.

Does your wallpaper infringe Mr. Adler’s copyright in the kimono vine inspired pillow design? Does it matter if you made up your own vine design that differed from Mr. Adler’s design, but which used his, among others, as inspiration?

The answer to these two questions depends on a number of factors. For the first question, given that you clearly copied Mr. Adler’s design, the question is whether the “fair use” defense would apply, part of which asks whether you sufficiently “transformed” Mr. Adler’s design to make it different enough from the original. The closer you get to a complete metamorphosis of Mr. Adler’s design – think the caterpillar becoming a butterfly – the safer you are. That’s because if your work and Mr. Adler’s are that different then people won’t think that Mr. Adler designed your pillow.

For the second question, you may not even need to get to the fair use defense. That only comes into play when you have actually copied another person’s expression. Because you merely used Mr. Adler’s expression of the Japanese vine design, among others in the marketplace, as inspiration to create your work, and your work differs from Mr. Adler’s, then there would in all likelihood be no infringement. That’s because copyright doesn’t protect the idea of the Japanese vine design, only Mr. Adler’s particular expression of it. Given that his expression isn’t original in the marketplace, it will most likely receive less protection than something truly off the wall – and original.

In the end, a completely original design is the best policy. That being said, designs are rarely completely original. The more your design exactly resembles another person’s work, the closer you are getting to the infringement line.

An Axl Rose sample used in a mash up often doesn’t sound as sweet.

An Axl Rose sample used in a mash up often doesn’t sound as sweet.

The bright lines of the real property based view of copyright are being blurred by technology. In 1991, Mr. Biz Markee was found liable for infringing Mr. Gilbert O’Sullivan’s copyright in his song, Alone Again (Naturally), when Mr. Markee used an unauthorized sample in his rap song entitled Alone Again. Had Mr. Markee used Mr. O’Sullivan’s song in a mash up, the result may have been different.

A mash up is a digitally created song that splices in elements of other songs, sometimes in very small increments — not in quarks, but in milliseconds — to create what some would argue are original pieces. Think of a mash up as a fusion dish that blends elements of Chinese, southern soul food, Italian, and Mexican cuisine into one dish. The question arises whether the unauthorized use of other people’s songs in a mash up is an infringement or a fair use of their copyrighted works?

The question isn’t an academic one. According to Turning Profit from Music Mashups, New York based tech company Dubset Media, Inc., collects royalties from mash up artists who use other copyrighted songs in their works. The company’s technology, known as “MixScan,” tracks uses of copyrighted songs down to the second on mash ups. It then distributes royalties to labels depending on the extent of use.

These royalty streams come in different forms and can be lucrative, Turning Profit saying that such mini sampling can generate an additional $1.2 billion a year in revenues. That’s because there is a copyright in the musical composition underlying the song, and in the recording of the song. In Mr. O’Sullivan’s case, he would own the copyright to the composition of Alone Again (Naturally), which includes the musical notes and lyrics to the song, in addition to his recording of the song in the studio, known as the “master.” Mr. O’Sullivan collects royalties from those who wish to publicly perform or re-record his composition, and from others who wish to use the recording of the song in their music or in a film. Mr. Markee avoided paying these royalties to Mr. O’Sullivan by using the uncleared sample in the rap song Alone Again.

However, had Mr. Markee used Mr. O’Sullivan’s song in a mash up, the resulting decision finding infringement wouldn’t have been so easy. Mr. Markee would likely have had a colorable fair use defense if he: physically transformed the sample (changing the frequency, tone, bass) so that it became physically unrecognizable in the final product, sampled only a small part, and if the resulting rap song either had no effect on the market for Mr. O’Sullivan’s work, or exposed it further.

Courts are more prone to find fair use — and no infringement — when there is either physical transformation of the copyrighted work in a new work, or application to a new purpose. Patrick Cariou, a photographer, lost his copyright infringement lawsuit against appropriation artist Richard Prince because he had physically modified the photographer’s photos of Rastafarians — in one case, putting a gas mask and guitar in the Rastafarian’s hands. In the recent Google books case, Google was found to have fairly used authors’ copyrighted indexes to their books by making them searchable via Google books. This is so even though there was no physical transformation of the copyrighted work, but, rather, only application to a new purpose.

Before the recent technology boom, copyright infringement was viewed with a real property monocle — one toe over the line constitutes a trespass. But technology is making that toe harder to see and the resulting line between properties less clear. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but an Axl Rose sample in a mash up doesn’t smell as sweet.

Sticks and stones may break your bones, but Charlie Hebdo cartoons will never hurt you.

Sticks and stones may break your bones, but Charlie Hebdo cartoons will never hurt you.

Don’t insult the Pope’s mother, or he’ll punch you in the face! In response to questioning about the Charlie Hebdo killings, the Pope stated: “If [you] say[] a curse word against my mother, [you] can expect a punch.” Not only does the Pope mischaracterize the Charlie Hebdo speech as consisting of naked insults, but well educated thinkers also have tried to paint the speech as “brazenly racist.” No matter how distasteful, such speech is clearly parody and is protected under U.S. law. Even if such speech was “brazenly racist,” U.S. law would still protect it under certain circumstances. French law should follow suit — if it already doesn’t.

In the Pope’s view, “[t]’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.” In a recent article by Oxford educated Mr. Mehdi Hasan entitled, As a Muslim, I’m fed up with the hypocrisy of free speech fundamentalists, he says: “[l]ampooning racism by reproducing brazenly racist imagery is a pretty dubious satirical tactic.” Not only that, but he thinks liberalism is hypocritical in that it, in his view, allows mockery of Muslims but not Jews: “Has your publication [The NewStatesmen], for example, run cartoons mocking the Holocaust? No.” Mr. David Brooks, a writer for The New York Times, chimed in, calling Charlie Hebdo’s speech “puerile” and “deliberately offensive humor” in I am not Charlie Hebdo.

Regardless if the Pope, Mr. Hasan, or Mr. Brooks are offended by or simply dislike Charlie Hebdo cartoons, such content would be parody under U.S. law. As stated by the Stanford Copyright and Fair Use Center, “[a] parody is a work that ridicules another, usually well-known work, by imitating it in a comic way . . . Unlike other forms of fair use, a fairly extensive use of the original work is permitted in a parody in order to ‘conjure up’ the original.” This means that the alleged fair use need not be “transformative” of the original work — either a physical transformation as was the case in the Barbara Kruger litigation, or application to a new efficient technological use as the book indexes in the recent Google book scanning case — when parody is involved. Similarly, under the First Amendment, parody is a protected form of speech under cases such as Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988) regardless of the transformative nature of the speech.

Charlie Hebdo’s very existence is “broadly anti-religion and anti-establishment” and, as such, the publication has shot powerful parody bullets at Catholics, Muslims, Jews, and the French government. In fact, the Vatican has sued Charlie Hebdo 12 more times than Muslims. When viewed in light of the overall purpose of the paper to mock and challenge religion in general, none of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are per se naked insults, an analogy to per se illegal price fixing restraints in antitrust law, of the Prophet. Instead, the cartoons are meant to ridicule the self-rightious nature of Islam, which often is characterized as not having a sense of humor. Similar humor can be found in movies like Mel Brook’s History of the World Part I, which pokes fun at Jesus and the last supper, both of which are sacred to Catholics. Notably missing from Mr. Hasan’s article — and Mr. David Brook’s — is mention of Arabs who stand in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, as summarized in Arab Editorial Cartoonists Respond to “Charlie Hebdo.”Obviously, making fun of the Holocaust without an appurtenant message would be a naked insult, not a parody. Not an apt analogy by Mr. Hasan.

But let’s assume that Charlie Hebdo’s speech was “brazenly racist.” This does not necessarily mean it should be per se banned. In National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie, 432 U.S. 43 (1977), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of the National Socialist Party of America, otherwise known in the Blues Brothers movie as the “[t]he fucking [Illinois] Nazi party,” to obtain a permit to march through predominately Jewish Skokie Illinois. As an illustration of the alleged hypocrisy of the current liberal establishment, Mr. Hasan posits a hypo from an Oxford philosopher, “if a man had joined the ‘unity rally’ in Paris on 11 January ‘wearing a badge that said Je suis Chérif‘ – the first name of one of the Charlie Hebdo gunmen” he would have been murdered. Perhaps, but the Nazis in Skokie would likely have been stoned — or worse — if they tried to march without a license, which would have given them police protection. Under U.S. law, even though the man in Mr. Hasan’s hypo would have the right to voice his thoughts, such right would not be unfettered. He would have needed protection. Regardless, an offensive parody cartoon in a widely circulated newspaper has less of a propensity to directly incite violence than one individual entering a marching group and voicing his or her opposition speech in the face of others, which is why this hypo by Mr. Hasan’s Oxford philosopher isn’t relevant either.

The images in Charlie Hebdo aren’t defamatory, don’t falsely shout “fire” in a crowded room, or even insult the Pope’s mother. It is unfortunate that the Pope and his cohorts don’t heed the elementary school saying: “sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but words never will.” For them to think otherwise is to turn Western liberalism on its head.

Are you going to bark all day little doggie? Sony’s attempt to muzzle media has no legal basis.

Are you going to bark all day little doggie? Sony’s attempt to muzzle media has no legal basis.

Is David Boies going to bark all day by sending cease and desist letters to media on behalf of Sony, warning them not to use leaked Sony e-mails and other documents in their reporting, or is he going to bite by seeking an injunction?

The WSJ reported in Sony Tells Media Not To Use Leaked Documents that Mr. Boies sent a letter to media outlets barking: “If you do not comply with this request and the Stolen Information is used or disseminated by you in any manner,” then, “[Sony pictures] will have no choice but to hold you responsible for any damage or loss arising from such use or dissemination by you.”

The U.S. Supreme Court, in Bartnicki v. Vopper, 532 U.S. 514 (2001), held that the a radio station could not be liable for broadcasting a story using stolen information so long as the station did not partake in the theft. This is not to say that the hack wasn’t a horrible invasion and breach of an American company’s privacy and security, respectively. It is to say that a dangerous precedent would be set if media was muzzled by the law — or put in fear by frivolous lawsuits — under such circumstances.

In Reservoir Dogs, the noir movie directed by Quentin Tarantino, Mr. White, played by Harvey Keitel, says to Mr. Blonde, played by Michael Madsen: “You almost killed me! Asshole! If I knew what kind of a guy you were I never would’ve agreed to work with you!” Mr. Blonde’s response: “Are you gonna bark all day little doggie? Or are you gonna bite?” Mr. White doesn’t bite. Nor will Mr. Boies.

That’s because the law is not on Sony’s side.

What would Jimmy do?

What would Jimmy do?

In 1994, Congress extended copyright protection to foreign works of art that were not previously protected by the Copyright Act. You say: “so what?” Well, in so doing, Congress made it so that you have to pay to use certain works, such as “If I Had My Way,” which were previously in the public domain. The debate has made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where arguments were heard last week in Golan v. Holder on whether Congress has such power under the Constitution. Congress likely has such power, and there are good reasons why Congress would expand copyright protections to such works.

The legal issue before the Court in Golan is whether Congress has the power to grant copyright for the very first time to works that were not previously copyrighted at all. The plaintiffs in the case argue that if the works were not protected by copyright at the time, they cannot now be retroactively subject to copyright by Congress under the Constitution.

Congress has broad power under the Constitution to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Aerts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” As such, Congress does not have unfettered right to bestow copyright protection for however long it wants. In the plaintiff’s view, the 1994 law extends the term of copyright, which is the life of the author plus 70 years for works created on or after January 1, 1978, beyond that currently allowed.

However, there are good reasons why the passage of the 1994 law “promotes the Progress of Science and useful Arts” by extended the protective shroud of — and not the term of protection under — the Copyright Act. Under the Berne Convention, American artists get reciprocal protection for their works overseas provided their foreign artist colleagues are protected here, too. As Solicitor General Donald Verilli is quoted in Copyright Law Challenged, the 1994 law amounted to “the price of admission to the international system.”

It seems that, if Mr. Jimmy Hendrix were alive, we would likely have been in favor of the 1994 law. (Justice Roberts referred to Mr. Hendrix in oral argument.) An avid traveler to places like Essaouira, Morocco, Mr. Hendrix would have wanted his works to be protected overseas, even if that meant his foreign compatriot’s works would be provided protection here, too.