Google Books & The Semantic Maze of Fair Use

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This week the Supreme Court declined to consider the Authors Guild v Google case, which lets stand the Second Circuit Court ruling that Google’s use of scanned published works for its search tool Google Books constitutes a fair use.  Various pundits and advocates have hailed this as a victory for the fair use principle.  In fact, I saw a headline the other day on Facebook that began with the words “Fair Use Wins …”, and although the decision is unquestionably a win for Google, the fair use principle actually remains mired in a semantic confusion about which the high court might have at least provided some clarity.  It’s all about the word transformativeness.

The fair use doctrine was added to the Copyright Law as part of the 1976 Act, and its original intent was to protect various types of expressions—commentary, parody, education, artistic remixes, reportage, etc.—that by necessity made limited and conditional uses of copyrighted works.  I’ve written longer posts about fair use doctrine in general, and won’t repeat all that here, but readers will remember that there are four interrelated factors to be considered* in assessing whether a use constitutes a fair use.  But in 1994, in a landmark case that was heard by the Supreme Court called Campbell v Acuff-Rose Music, the fair use doctrine grew a new appendage called “transformativeness” that has, in the age of the internet, not only become something of a fifth factor that seems to override consideration of the other four, but also has not been clearly defined as a term of art in legal practice.

As I continue to learn from my attorney friends, some of the words we use in everyday language become terms of art in the legal world, which generally means that court rulings have shaped, narrowed, or expanded the dictionary definition of key terms.  For instance, based on the current ruling by a federal court, the word articles can only mean “physical objects” with regard to the International Trade Commission’s authority to prohibit the importation of illegal goods.  So, if Congress wants to grant that body the authority to restrict the importation of digital data for illegal purposes, they’re probably going to have to rewrite the law.  (More about that another time, perhaps.)

The concept of “transformativeness” in fair use parlance was introduced by Judge Pierre Leval in his paper “Toward a Fair Use Standard” published in the Harvard Law Review in 1990, and coincidentally it was Leval who wrote the decision in the Second Circuit’s ruling in Authors Guild v Google.  But even though the “father of transformativeness” himself has ruled in this case, there is still much confusion about the term and what it means when considering fair use. As Thomas Sydnor of the Center for Internet, Communications and Technology Policy at the American Enterprise Institute writes about the situation:

“As cases applying this judge-made “transformativeness”-based approach to fair use accumulate, that term becomes increasingly incoherent, inconsistent, and counterintuitive. Collectively, its incoherence(s) now threaten to turn what was once a productively flexible multi-factor balancing test into little more than a perfunctory recitation of factors ending in judicial ipsa dixit – “because I said so.” Under such circumstances, rule of law cannot persist.”

Sydnor further points out that the word transform already exists in the 1976 Copyright Act in reference to the preparation of “derivative works,” which is another term of art to describe works such as spin-offs or adaptations into other media. These rights belong exclusively to the copyright owner of the original work and should not be confused with the more casual way we might use the word derivative to describe, or even criticize, a work that is mimicking some other work.  For instance, the above-mentioned Campbell case involves a work of parody that we might describe in common language as derivative, but not so in the context of copyright law.

Campbell v Acuff-Rose Music involved a new, expressive work, specifically 2 Live Crew’s raunchy parody of the song “Oh, Pretty Woman” co-written and originally performed by Roy Orbison.  The court held in Campbell that “the more transformative the new work, the less will be the significance of other factors.”  In this case, the court is referring to the extent to which 2 Live Crew “transformed” the original song to make a new song.  By contrast, though, Google does not “transform” any of the original works to create new expressions but instead uses the contents of the works to create a new search service called Google Books.

So, with these two rulings, we are looking at two significantly distinct definitions of the word transformativeness.  The first refers to modification of an expressive work in order to make a new expressive work.  The second implicitly refers to transformation of the external world (society) by the introduction of some new capacity (i.e. function) it did not have before.  This is particularly relevant because the language used by SCOTUS, asserting that “transformativeness” should “lessen the significance of the other factors,” can only rationally be applied—if the spirit of fair use doctrine is to be kept intact—to the first definition in which an original work is “transformed” to create a new, expressive work.  In the second usage of the word, in which the external world is assumed to be transformed by some new functional use, then “transformativeness” becomes too heavily weighted against the other factors, thus giving (for instance) a giant, wealthy service provider extraordinary latitude to define just about anything it does as socially “transformative.”

If the courts are going to apply this second definition of “transformativeness,” then it seems the consideration ought not to carry any more weight than the other factors because the second definition provides a basis for large-scale, corporate-funded uses of millions of works in a way that the first definition does not.  In other words Google Books may be deemed a fair use in the end, but it is not sensible that the application of “transformativeness” in Campbell be applied.  As it stands, the courts appear to be giving the same weight to “transformativeness” while using two very different definitions of the word.

Semantically speaking, I would argue that transformative is not exactly the right word to use when one specifically wants to describe some measure of modification to an existing thing like a creative expression.  The term is problematic because it begs exactly the confusion we now have in the courts—because transformative more properly describes the effects of an invention or expression to the external world (e.g. electricity was transformative in that it made modern society). While it would not be wrong in common parlance to describe, for instance, Jeff Buckley’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as “transformative,” even this usage would generally tend to convey that both song and listener are in some way transformed.  But in law, this is too vague.  This is why the attorneys refer to a term of art –a definition that is established within the language of the law that may or may not conform to everyday usage.  Sydnor points out that Leval himself provides little guidance in this regard when he quotes the judge thus:

“The word “transformative” cannot be taken too literally as a sufficient key to understanding the elements of fair use. It is rather a suggestive symbol for a complex thought….”

 “[T]he word “transformative,” if interpreted too broadly, can also seem to authorize copying that should fall within the scope of an author’s derivative rights. Attempts to find a circumspect shorthand for a complex concept are best understood as suggestive of a general direction, rather than as definitive descriptions.”

Right. I’m no legal scholar, but I think the concept “transformative” is a troublemaker.

Because the precedent SCOTUS ruling in Campbell is based on the use of “transformativeness” to describe the modification of an expressive work, it would make sense to settle upon this definition and to seek another term for considering functional uses akin to Google Books. As CEO of Copyright Alliance Keith Kupferschmid writes in a post on the organization’s website:

“The fair use doctrine is an equitable doctrine, but in functional use cases it hasnt worked that way because the transformative use test is ill equipped to effectively balance the competing interests at stake in these cases.  Fair use analysis should take into account not only the interests of owners and users but also the underlying policy objectives of the copyright law.  To account for these factors in a reasonable and balanced way, it is time for the courts to begin using a functional use test.”

Unfortunately for rights holders, the confusion about “transformativeness” that leaks into general consciousness results in a casual logic, which assumes that simply changing the context of a work, like placing a photograph on one’s Facebook page, is “transformative” enough to make a use fair.  Google Books is a misstep in that direction, and if this becomes the application of fair use, then that’s the ballgame.  There are no copyrights left. I can take your songs or images, put them on this blog, call it “transformative”, and get away with it.  That may be an attractive proposal to the internet industry, but it is far from the original intent of fair use doctrine in the copyright law, which was to protect expression, and it would have disastrous effects on the professional creative industry as we know it.


*Changed from original publication, which stated that the factors are considered by a three-judge panel.  As pointed out by Anonymous commenter, this is only true in an appellate court. A mistake I made in haste owing to the fact that many famous fair use cases are famous because they’ve gone to higher courts.

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