Meera Nair

no surprise

In Posts on October 29, 2015 at 7:11 pm

Two weeks ago we received the unremarkable news that Google Books had prevailed at the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit; that the copying of entire books in order to provide information about the books, including displaying snippets of content, was fair use. I say “unremarkable” as the outcome was expected. The Second Circuit was the appellate court that sent this dispute back to a district court expressly because the district court had not considered fair use. After due consideration, in November 2013 the district court declared that Google Books’ operations fell within fair use. That triggered an appeal from the Authors Guild (despite the fact that the appeal would be heard by the same Second Circuit).

The present decision of the Second Circuit was penned by Judge Pierre Leval, who might be best known as the founding father of the relevance of “transformative” in American fair use dialogue. It should not surprise anyone that Leval emphasized the expanded utility wrought by Google Books. Placing the decision firmly upon the American constitutional foundation for copyright, namely that the system of copyright must “promote the progress of science and the useful arts,” Leval writes: “the purpose of Google’s copying of the original copyrighted books is to make available significant information about those books, permitting a searcher to identify those that contain a word or term of interest, as well as those that do not include reference to it (p.22, emphasis in original).”

Judge Leval carries out the four-factor analysis, as per statutory custom in the United States. Mike Masick (Techdirt) provides detailed coverage of the analysis, noting in particular that the United States has yet another clear indication that commerciality does not impede fair use and that the use of bogey man arguments offered without any evidence (such as the possibility that would-be hackers could obtain the complete scans of the books) have no place in a serious consideration of law. Further analysis and coverage of this matter by Patricia Aufderheide (Center for Media and Social Impact), Brandon Butler (American University) and Kevin Smith (Duke University) all make for very good reading.

From a Canadian perspective the decision is a reminder that the United States’ culture of fair use is distinct from our culture of fair dealing. American fair use history was marked by an unfortunate period of time where commerciality and market impact became the touchstones upon which fair use was determined. Consequently, what was considered world-wide as the best exception, by virtue of flexible language that could accommodate futures unknown, lay inert in the United States. It has taken the country decades to restore fair use as a meaningful exception within the system of copyright, and establish that fair use is not simply a means to address market failure.

(Perhaps it was through observing this unfortunate path, that our Supreme Court took pains to safeguard Canada’s development of fair dealing with a strict reminder that the presence of licensing was not sufficient to deny fair dealing nor was market impact the most important factor of analysis.)

In 2010, I dealt with this portion of American fair use history in some detail. In “Fair Dealing at a Crossroads,” From Radical Extremism to Balanced Copyright (ed. Michael Geist), I wrote:

The prominence of commerciality, through the first and fourth factors, was set in the 1984 Sony decision, even though that action was inconsis­tent with the statutory language of the law. Although the United States’ Supreme Court sought to correct its mistakes, with some success in 1994, lower courts continued to place undue emphasis upon commerciality (p. 92, citations omitted).

The success of 1994 was Campbell v. Acuff Rose Music, Inc, a fair use dispute over a commercially released parody. Favoring fair use, the American Supreme Court of the day sought a way to blunt the emphasis upon commerciality and gave rise to the importance of “transformative” as “… altering the original with new expression, meaning, or message. The more transformative the new work, the less will be the significance of other factors, like commercialism … .” Their reasoning drew from the work of Judge Leval.

Since 1994, American courts have systematically returned to the language around “transformative,” giving fair use a reasonable ambit of application and chance of success, as befitting a measure that has been referred to as providing “breathing space within the confines of copyright.” But while the language of “transformative” is a key feature of American dialogue, Canadians are fortunate not to be so reliant on terminology.

Our leading decisions concerning fair dealing focused upon exact reproduction of works (whole or in part) often with the same purpose that the works were intended for at their inception. By virtue of a contextual analysis, our Supreme Court declared those circumstances as giving rise to fair dealing. True, the reasoning employed would meld along the lines of expanded utility but we need not frame our reasoning to match a particular phrase. Our Supreme Court asks us to examine uses of copyrighted work broadly, with a scope of inquiry tailored to the situation at hand. Fair dealing rests upon the entirety of that analysis.

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