When Fair Use Threatens the Derivative Works Right

At the same AI and copyright round-table referred to in my last post, Stephen Carlisle of Nova Southeastern University posed this question:  Is the application of “transformative” analysis under the fair use doctrine threatening to extinguish the derivative works right?  This grabbed my attention, partly because it jibed with comments I made in at least two posts about Brammer v. Violent Hues; but for readers who don’t follow copyright law for fun, I’ll try to explain …

Section 106(2) of the U.S. copyright law grants authors the exclusive right to prepare derivative works.  So, the filmmaker who wants to adapt your novel into a movie must obtain your license to prepare a “derivative work” based on said novel (a.k.a the “underlying work”).  If the film creates original visual material, like a creature that might make a cool action figure, the action-figure producer would have to obtain the filmmaker’s license to prepare a derivative work based on that original design. If another party proposes a Netflix series based on minor characters from the novel, that license may remain with you as the original book author; with the filmmaker who made the first adaptation; or be shared depending on certain variables and agreements.

Suffice to say, derivative works are nearly always some use of underlying material in a new context; and  for the purposes of this post, it is fair to summarize the opinion in Brammer as holding that the use of a whole work in a new context from its original purpose was “transformative” under a fair use analysis.  So, because Brammer is an extreme example of a broader effort by certain parties to push the boundaries of fair use, this is what Carlisle was driving at with his comment; and he further noted that the word transform is part of the statutory definition of a derivative work

A “derivative work” is a work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted.”

So, it is not hard see how a misreading of “transformative” in a fair use analysis can end up validating infringement of the author’s derivative works right.  Moreover, once that “transformative” box is checked, the likelihood of finding fair use increases considerably.  This is reasonable enough when a use is made to produce a truly new expression; but when “transformative” becomes synonymous with “placed in a new context,” the courts are in danger of abrogating the foundation of nearly all licensing protected by the bundle of rights vested in the author.

Almost the only check on such a reading of “transformativeness” is factor four of the fair use test, which assesses the commercial nature of the use; and unfortunately, commerciality may be equally misconstrued.  For instance, if monster maker Jordu Schell sculpts an original creature he intends to sell as a limited-edition piece to collectors, his exclusive right under 106(2) prohibits some not-for-profit entity from 3D printing miniature copies of the monster to give away at a fundraising event. 

But based on the flawed fair use analysis in Brammer, the not-for-profit defendant could argue that their use is “transformative” because 1) it is very different from the context of fine-art collectors; 2) because their use was communicative rather than expressive;  and 3) because their use was non-commercial on the basis that they did not sell the figurines.  Prior to all the confusion sown by these squishy “transformative” arguments, any court should easily be able to call bullshit on such reasoning and recognize that the defendant would have infringed Schell’s exclusive right to prepare derivative works.  End of discussion.

Like fair use, the derivative works right was codified in the 1976 Copyright Act, but its emerging principles can be found in caselaw dating back to at least the mid eighteenth century in both the U.K. and the U.S.  With the development of photography, followed by sound recording, motion pictures, etc., new technologies naturally fostered new ways to use the “heart” of an underlying copyrighted work.  And because law is usually slower than invention—let alone a thorough understanding of a new medium—there are several examples throughout the nineteenth century in which one could argue that copyright law was conveniently interpreted beyond statutory rationale to find infringement.

Scholar Oren Bracha offers such an analysis with respect to the case he considers seminal in the development of the derivative works right.  In Kalem Co. v Harper Brothers (1911) the fifteen-minute, silent film adaptation of Ben Hur was held by Justice Holmes to have infringed the authors’ exclusive right to “dramatize” their works under the statutory amendment of 1891.

There are actually a number of moving parts in to this particular case, but simply put, Bracha contends that Holmes stretched the meaning of “dramatize” in order to encompass the very new medium of of motion pictures and then shoehorned a rationale to find contributory infringement. “The Kalem decision was thus a crucial transitory moment,” he writes.  The decision’s rationale was already based on the new model of copyright, but its legal reasoning still relied on manipulating the doctrines that were rooted in the the traditional print-bound model.”

One can interpret Holmes’s opinion in Kalem as legislating from the bench (although he did have ample precedent that copyright protects intangible expression*) or as a prescient understanding of copyright’s transition into the technological 20th century.  Or perhaps a bit of both.  That case was decided one year before the category “motion pictures” was added to U.S. copyright law and ninety years before the first Harry Potter movie was released.  And I doubt that anyone today would support Warner Bros. building a mega-franchise based on those books without honoring J. K. Rowling’s exclusive right to “prepare derivative works.”  

Presently, we are in the midst of another transitory period with new technologies allegedly posing new challenges to copyright law.  At least that’s the headline. But I’m not convinced that copyright is nearly so challenged in the 21st century as it was during the 19th.  No matter how one analyzes Holmes’s opinion in Kalem, there is no denying that he was contending with something truly revolutionary that challenged the court to consider the nature of copyright.  By contrast, a lot of tech companies today will liberally appeal to the virtue of innovation as a rationale to circumvent, ignore, or amend copyright law—including the effort to make “transformative” mean whatever serves the interest of the moment. But how many of the major “innovators” have actually invented something that poses new questions about copyrighted works and the exclusive rights of authors?

Returning to Brammer, for example, publishing a photograph on a website hardly requires a major theoretical inquiry in order to compare that conduct to publishing a photograph in a magazine or a brochure.  It’s just a different form of “reproduction” and “display” and should be about ten minutes work for any court.  Likewise, most of the major platforms are just variations on the capacity to display or broadcast creative works through computer networks—a fairly new experience for us as consumers, but not necessarily as groundbreaking from a copyright perspective as the platform owners would have us believe.

The relative novelty of streaming or downloading music and video doesn’t come anywhere close to posting the legal challenges triggered by the seminal technologies invented between the 1830s and the 1890s.  And in case after case, those courts generally tracked the “essence” of the author’s work as it was used in contexts far more exotic than almost any 21st century use trying to bamboozle us with notions of “transformativeness.”

It was out of that extraordinary period of invention—concurrent with the evolution of fair use doctrine—that the derivative works right was given shape and eventually added to the bundle of rights vested in the author.  To date, it seems to me that no technology or model has yet been invented that would justify the fair use doctrine encroaching upon the derivative works right.  Yet if decisions like Brammer are allowed to stand and various tech businesses had their way, that’s exactly what would happen.


*Donaldson v. Beckett (UK); Daly v. Palmer; Burrow-Giles v. Sarony; et al

© 2019, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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