This post is based on a recent federal appellate case, Lenz v. Universal Music. That case held that one must consider fair use as a possible defense for an online service provider before sending a takedown notice under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).
On occasion I am asked about the extent to which a new work can incorporate elements of a pre-existing work without infringing the pre-existing work’s copyright. To answer such a question, one must understand derivative works.
17 U.S.C. Section 101 says (emphasis added):
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. A work consisting of editorial revisions, annotations, elaborations, or other modifications which, as a whole, represent an original work of authorship, is a “derivative work”.
Over the weekend, I answered a LinkedIn question [no longer available there because LinkedIn ended its Q&A feature] about whether posting a copyrighted photo of another company’s product with disparaging comments about that product might be protected by the “fair use” defense to copyright infringement. I am reproducing the question and answer, in edited form, below.
Q. My website is copyrighted and the newest product is trademark and patent pending. The image was “clipped/copied” by an individual and placed on a website without my permission to do so. Am I right that this is not “fair use” of my work?
A. The “Fair Use” Defense: One Term, Two Different Meanings discusses the four elements of copyright fair use. The analysis always is highly fact-specific, so it is difficult to say whether use on cpaptalk.com qualifies for that defense, but I think there is a reasonable argument that it does.
Several months ago, I wrote that the “fair use” defense to copyright infringement often is poorly understood. The U.S. Postal Service illustrates this point. A recent court decision held that a postage stamp infringed the copyrights in certain sculptures and was not fair use thereof.
John Alli took a photo of the Memorial. The Postal Service paid Alli $1,500 for the right to use that photo for a 37-cent stamp commemorating the 50th anniversary of the armistice of the Korean War. Alli told the Postal Service that it would need permission from the owner of the copyright in the sculptures; the Postal Service did not seek such permission. (more…)
Those of a certain age will recall watching “Rin Tin Tin” on TV as kids. The venerable canine recently was the subject of a trademark infringement suit (Rin Tin Tin, Inc., et al. v. First Look Studios, Inc., et al.). The defendants prevailed because of the trademark fair use defense.
Rin Tin Tin was a German Shepherd dog found in France during World War I. He became famous through movies and remains well-known to this day.
Plaintiffs breed German Shepherds descended from the original Rin Tin Tin and manage related business endeavors. Rin Tin Tin, Inc. obtained federal trademark registrations for “Rin Tin Tin” pertaining to puppies and dogs of the Rin Tin Tin lineage. (more…)
In Bridgeport Music v. UMG Recordings, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that the song “D.O.G in Me” by Public Announcement willfully infringed Bridgeport’s copyright in the 1982 song “Atomic Dog” by George Clinton.
What intrigues me is that the finding of infringement was based the substantial similarity of only a limited amount of the lyrics: Use of the phrase ?Bow wow wow, yippie yo, yippie yea?, repetition of the word ?dog? in a low tone of voice at regular intervals, and the sound of rhythmic panting.
The court rejected UMG’s assertion of a fair use defense, noting, in particular, that although the substantial similarity pertained to relatively small elements of ?Atomic Dog?, they were the most distinctive and recognizable elements of the song.
What this case teaches us: Using even a small portion of someone’s copyrighted work can constitute infringement if that portion is sufficiently distinctive and recognizable.
This blog does not provide legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. If you need legal advice, please contact an attorney directly.
This Ralph Lauren ad has been making the rounds of the Internet and television, recently. The reason: Photo retouching to the point of absurdity, producing a supermodel (Filippa Hamilton) who looks more like a Bratz doll than a human being.
I am not raising this issue to jump into the debate about skinny models and self-esteem of girls and women, which is being addressed at length elsewhere. (Disclosure: I have a wife and two daughters.) I am more interested in a huge legal and business mistake that Ralph Lauren made.
“Fair use” is a legal term that does not necessarily mean what people often assumes it means (a free pass to use other people’s intellectual property). Indeed, the term has two different meanings, depending on whether copyrights or trademarks are at issue.
Copyright protects works of authorship. See Copyright Protection in One Easy Lesson. The copyright owner has the exclusive right (as applicable) to reproduce, distribute, publicly perform, publicly display, and make derivative works of the copyrighted work.
Copyright infringement is the unauthorized exercise of one of the exclusive rights by someone other than the copyright owner. Thus, for example unauthorized copying of someone else’s music or movie constitutes copyright infringement.