This week, the SDNY denied the motion to dismiss requested by Donald J. Trump et al in the copyright suit filed by singer/songwriter Eddy Grant. The complaint stems from the unlicensed use of Grant’s song “Electric Avenue” which was synched with an animated, political video satirizing then candidate Joe Biden in 2020. The video was distributed via social media, including on Trump’s own Twitter account on August 12th. The defendants based their petition for dismissal on the grounds that use of the song was a fair use.
It is difficult in general to win a dismissal of a copyright claim based on a fair use defense. But that procedural standard notwithstanding, the fair use argument presented in this case is well-trod territory and, therefore, short work for a court in the Second Circuit, which is replete with copyright precedent. Specifically, Trump et al employed a familiar tactic by arguing a too-broad interpretation of what it means to “use a work for a different purpose” than its original purpose at creation. This argument is made under the first prong of the fair use test, which considers the purpose of the use, including whether the use is transformative. Here, the SDNY was clear:
While it is true that the animation is partisan political commentary and the song apparently is not, the inquiry does not focus exclusively on the character of the animation; rather, it focuses on the character of the animation’s use of Grant’s song. As the Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently stated: ‘where a secondary work does not obviously comment on or relate back to the original or use the original for a purpose other than that for which it was created, the bare assertion of a ‘higher or different artistic use’ is insufficient to render a work transformative.’
So, as I say, the court is not breaking any new ground in finding that the fair use test would most likely favor Grant in this case and that it must, therefore, deny the motion to dismiss. If this litigation proceeds, I believe Trump et al will continue to find that there is no precedent on which its fair use defense can survive; and considering the much darker legal clouds gathering around Trump’s world, I would not be surprised if this little civil dispute with one musician is settled in the coming weeks or months.
Is Political Speech a Little Different?
What can be tricky for many observers with this kind of case—and the court here alludes to the matter—is that political satire is a “rich part of our First Amendment tradition.’” The the anti-Biden video was satirical in general and produced by a third party, albeit as an endorsement of Trump for President. But the reason the transformative test fails is that no comment upon “Electric Avenue” itself is present in the use. The fact that the overall message of a work may be satirical does not favor a fair use any more than if the overall message is deadly serious. The essential ingredient that must exist under prong one of the fair use test is some comment upon the work being used without license. But what if a political video is satirical overall and achieves parody of a work being used?
In fact, this is close to what occurred in Henley v. DeVore in which Don Henley’s songs were used for political purposes, and about which the court in Grant writes, “In Henley, the defendants changed some of the lyrics to the copyrighted songs and even provided their own vocals. And because the defendants there used the songs as vehicles for their political messaging, in one instance to poke fun at Henley himself for his political affiliations, the court found that the secondary works were satire and parody, respectively.”
The Grant court notes that the fair use test still failed due to the amount of Henley’s work used for the purpose, but I underline the example to make the point that a political advertisement could conceivably be parody of a work and a satire at the same time and, therefore, be held a fair use of a protected work at issue. But might this raise an acute tension with the First Amendment?
It is considered self-evident that political speech is a paradigmatic subject of the speech right, but if this is so, then compelled political speech is a paradigmatic infringement of the speech right. Thus, when a copyrighted work is used without license in a political message, the use has greater potential to result in an especially egregious form of compelled speech. This principle is exacerbated in the current climate, where political divisions are sharp and hostile, but also in the digital landscape, where the distinction between the political satirist and the political operative is almost invisible.
Any smartass with a smartphone can, and does, make potentially very persuasive political commentary and distribute same via social media. And, of course, the low-cost tools of production and distribution are available to the many PACs and other third parties who are not in the satire business like South Park or The Daily Show, but are instead in the professional campaign business. Meanwhile, as viewers, we do not pay much attention to the sources of all the memes and videos that shape or reinforce our views and opinions—even where that information is available at all.
In principle, a court looking at a satirical video, whether it is produced by a PAC or SNL, should consider fair use in the same manner. As the court in Grant notes, “…denying the defendants’ fair use defense in this case—especially at this early stage in the litigation—will not chill legitimate political satire. Creators of satirical videos like the one at issue here must simply conform any use of copyrighted music with copyright law….” On the one hand, it is sensible that a court view the Biden satire video as it would any other “legitimate political satire” with regard to the fair use analysis; but on the other hand, it strikes me that if the creator of a political satire is a political operative with a clear political purpose (e.g. to win an election or advance a specific policy), that the speech rights of the copyright owner should perhaps weigh more heavily against a finding of fair use than might be considered in a use that does not have such a clear political purpose.
While it is true that the unlicensed use of a work to promote a brand or a message may feel to the copyright owner like a form of compelled speech (and may even violate his right of publicity), these private sector infringements lack the state action necessary to implicate the First Amendment. And even though a work of political satire may be produced by a party like a PAC, which is in the private sector, when the satire’s purpose is arguably an extension of a political campaign—especially of an incumbent office-holder—the copyright owner may justifiably feel a more acute form of compelled speech than with a typical commercial infringement.
Specifically, when a sitting President uses his social platform to distribute a video endorsing his reelection, and the video is enhanced by an unlicensed copyrighted work, the compelled contribution by the rightsholder to that message may consider the experience awfully close to a constitutional, as well as a personal, violation of his speech rights. This may be true even with an incumbent who is more disciplined than Donald Trump when it comes to the distinctions between the office and the individual. The fact that this form of compelled speech will generally skirt a constitutional violation is a technicality mired in the tangles of campaign finance rules and the role of PACs, but the bottom line for the copyright owner is likely something like this: “The sitting President just used my voice to support his reelection, and I don’t support him.” But should that violation be allowed, if the use also succeeds in commenting upon the work at issue within the same political message? Perhaps, but alas …
Sadly, we no longer live in a world in which political theater plays a fractional role within a broader competition of ideas. Instead, our political process is too often nothing more than theater. No politician in modern history both exploited and exemplified this circus atmosphere more than Donald Trump, and no platform has ever amplified the cacophony like social media. It is simply too easy today to cobble together pictures and sounds into political performances that go viral; and at the very least, the authors of the works being used should be accorded the right to allow or disallow the exploitation of their creative expressions for those purposes.
The underlying principles of the fair use exception in copyright law are high-minded in theory. The exception supports the speech right—especially the right to comment upon protected works—and this, in turn, animates the foundation of copyright to promote more expression. But when considering fair use in regard to using unlicensed works for political speech, perhaps the identity of the user and the precise nature of his political intent should be considered under factor one—the purpose of the use—in deference to the copyright owner’s speech rights.
Photo source by: melis82