What I’ll Be Watching in 2023

T’is the week for year-in-review and/or looking-ahead articles. In that spirit, I recommend posts by Devlin Hartline, Hugh Stephens, and Aaron Moss. And here’s my list with commentary for your consideration:

AWF v. Goldsmith

Everyone in copyright world will be waiting, like Ralphie expecting his decoder ring, for the decision in this case. The highly anticipated question is whether the Supreme Court will provide clear guidance on the meaning of “transformativeness” in the factor one analysis of the fair use test. By invoking this highly subjective concept, follow-on creators have, at times, pushed lower court decisions toward problematic findings—first by finding “transformativeness” in secondary works that encroach on the derivative works right and/or classic instances where licensing is required; and second, compounding these errors by giving undue weight to factor one in the overall analysis.

AWF has argued that any “new meaning or message,” which may be subjectively interpreted by observing a follow-on work meets the definition of “transformative” and is, therefore, outcome determinative for finding fair use. Although, I have opined that this case poses certain difficulties in my view (i.e., that Warhol may have defenses under other principles), I agree that AWF’s argument presented here should be rejected and believe the Court should state that factor one must turn on whether the follow-on work contains at least some modicum of commentary on the original work. Absent such commentary, factor one should favor the copyright owner plaintiff. We shall see what the Court says in the coming weeks.

Hachette v. Internet Archive

Inasmuch as this is a very big case that could go all the way to the Supreme Court, it is almost impossible to fathom how Internet Archive is not destined to be rebuffed on the merits at every turn. What began as a lawsuit in response to IA’s unlicensed distribution of over one-million titles (using the fog of early COVID shutdowns as a rationale) is now a detailed complaint in which the facts imply more than just founder Brewster Kahle’s anti-copyright crusade.

In 2017, I asked whether the good aspects of IA require all the anti-copyright rhetoric in order to exist, and that was presuming Kahle’s well-known opposition to copyright was purely ideological. But some of the details in the publishers’ complaint imply financial interests that belie any pretense that IA is a principled, though misguided, Robin Hood. Expect to see the organization continue to allege that it is “just a library doing what libraries do,” but if this were true, the publishers’ suit would have been dismissed at the summary judgment stage. It should be clear by now that just because you say something on social media, that doesn’t make it true—least of all in a court of law.

The Copyright Claims Board (CCB)

Launched this past June, 2023 may be the year we really start to test the efficacy of the copyright small-claim alternative. For starters, the big question is how many respondents will opt-out of the tribunal. In order for the small-claim option to be constitutional, a defendant (respondent) must voluntarily agree to the proceeding, which led some to reasonably wonder whether the CCB will work at all if every defendant can simply opt out. But that question partly depends on how many plaintiffs are willing to file federal lawsuits, if the respondents are unwilling to resolve the matter at the CCB.

Further, to really understand how things are going at the CCB, we need a volume of cases and more time to allow the process to unfold. The plaintiff has 90 days once her case is active to show proof of service on the respondent, and the respondent has 60 days to opt out of the proceeding. Thus, with fewer than 300 cases filed between June and December this year, we simply do not have a lot of data yet. That said, Rachel Kim at Copyright Alliance posted a blog summarizing what we do know so far, and it’s worth a read.

Artificial Intelligence

I will not attempt to predict where this story goes in 2023, other than to expect that AI will continue to make headlines in the art world and beyond. As stated many times, I personally think AI generated “art” is a useless waste of computing power, but even if every artist and art consumer in the world agrees with that view, it seems unlikely that market failure of the companies behind generative AIs will predate one of these entities getting sued for copyright infringement. Perhaps not this coming year, but before long, expect to see litigation over the question of whether inputting large volumes of protected creative works into these databases amounts to mass copyright infringement or is exempted under the doctrine of fair use. And in anticipation of this battle, both sides of the argument may be scrutinizing the opinion(s) in AWF v. Goldsmith.

Gonzalez v. Google

Not a copyright case, but on the subject of platform accountability, the Supreme Court will finally have something to say about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The decision likely won’t come until 2024, but we will soon see briefs filed on behalf of Google, and oral arguments will be heard in 2023. I recently posted about this case here and here, but suffice to say, it is hard to imagine that the majority will not generally agree that the statute neither states—nor ever intended to state—that online platforms are entitled to the kind of unconditional, broad shield against civil liability the lower courts have granted them for nearly 20 years.

Although 230 is not copyright law, it shares a kinship with the contemporaneous DMCA. Both laws were predicated on immunizing platforms from liability for material posted by users, and although neither law grants these immunities unconditionally, many online service providers—especially the big ones—have wielded these liability shields beyond the limits of reason or anything Congress intended in the late 1990s. Thus, if the Court reigns in the free-for-all applied to date under Section 230, it is conceivable that the opinion in Gonzalez will inform congressional review of the DMCA, which began in 2020.

That’s what I got for this December 30, 2022. See you in the new year!

Photo by: MediaFuzeBox

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