The Government Is Putting Fair Use In Danger

    August 7, 2012

Fair use – what do those two words mean to you? If you’ve been following copyright law at all lately, you probably have heard the term thrown around a few times. It’s considered by many to be the most important feature in copyright law, so why is it always under attack?

It would be unfair to say that fair use is directly under attack. Even the worst Hollywood executives understand fair use and do nothing to directly impede it. What bills and treaties like SOPA, PIPA and ACTA did was weaken fair use to a point where it didn’t matter anymore. Thankfully, those three laws were killed before they could change everything for the worst. Unfortunately, the most secretive treaty of all – TPP – just revealed its intentions for fair use, and it’s not good.

Is fair use a concern to you? Are exceptions to copyright law something worth protecting? Let us know in the comments.

Before we get into that though, it’s important to understand why fair use is so important. As an example, here’s a YouTube parody video based on the popular video game, Skyrim:

If you’re not aware, this video contains a lot of copyrighted content from the game’s developers. That content can not be used without permission from the original copyright owner under normal conditions. Under fair use, it’s totally legal and encouraged. You see, fair use is an exception in copyright law that allows people to use copyrighted materials if the content in question is a non-commercial parody or uses the content for criticism, commentary or education.

YouTube is actually the perfect example of fair use. The entire Web site is pretty much dedicated to it with thousands of video creators using other people’s works in ways that fall under fair use protections. The young girl singing her favorite Justin Bieber song into a camera is fair use. The political commentator pulling clips from CNN and Fox News to make a point also falls under fair use.

The importance of fair use can not be understated. That’s why the recent leak from the fair use section of TPP has proponents so concerned. After promising that the revised TPP would contain strong fair use protections, the text of the bill actually restricts fair use. Here’s the text of the treaty acquired by KEI Online:

1. [US/AU: With respect to this Article [(Article 4 on copyright) and Article 5 and 6 (which deal with copyright and related rights section and the related rights section)], each Party shall confine limitations or exceptions to exclusive rights to certain special cases that do not conflict with a normal exploitation of the work, performance, or phonogram, and do not unreasonably prejudice the legitimate interests of the right holder.]

2. Subject to and consistent with paragraph (1), each Party shall seek to achieve an appropriate balance in providing limitations or exceptions, including those for the digital environment, giving due consideration to legitimate purposes such as, but no limited to, criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship and research.92]

As TechDirt points out, the leaked section on fair use actually does nothing to defend fair use or increase its reach. It pulls the text from the three step test that was introduced to the Bernes Convention in 1971. Here’s the text from the Berne’s Convention treaty:

It shall be a matter for legislation in the countries of the Union to permit the reproduction of such works in certain special cases, provided that such reproduction does not conflict with a normal exploitation of the work and does not unreasonably prejudice the legitimate interests of the author.

While the actual text doesn’t seem all that bad, it’s the interpretation that counts. When you leave the legality of fair use up to “not unreasonably prejudice the legitimate interests of the author,” things are going to get messy. The problem is further compounded by a Supreme Court ruling in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music that put the burden of proving fair use on the defendant. It’s so much easier to prove that a work is copyright infringing then to prove that it’s fair use. Thankfully, in the aforementioned case, the defendants were able to prove that their work was valid under fair use. One victory does not mean that all will be like that, and the rules of TPP make it harder for people to prove fair use.

What’s interesting is that only the United States and Australia are behind these excessive measures. TPP is being debated and written by a number of countries in the Pacific, but only the U.S. and Australia are behind the worst parts. In fact, countries like Brazil, Chile, Malaysia and Vietnam want to incorporate strong consumer protections into TPP that would strengthen fair use and allow consumers to own their digital content.

[NZ/CL/MY/BN/VN propose; AU/US oppose93: 1. Each party may provide for limitations and exceptions to copyrights, related rights, and legal protections for technological protections measures and rights management information included in this Chapter, in accordance with its domestic laws and relevant international treaties that each are party to.]

Do you think TPP should strengthen its fair use clause? Or are the current protections enough? Let us know in the comments.

Earlier, I used a Skyrim parody video to illustrate fair use. Unfortunately, we live in a world where real world examples of fair use and essential freedom abuses are easy to come by. We recently reported on a YouTube video being taken down due to copyright violation notices from CBS and the United States Department of Homeland Security. The main concern here is that the video, which only contains the ramblings of a conspiracy theorist, was taken down by a brach of the government.

The secondary concern is that the video falls under fair use. Even if it was the insane ramblings of a conspiracy theorist; he was using copyrighted content, a Sky News broadcast in this case, to provide commentary on world events. Such a case falls under fair use and copyright holders should know that. While there’s something to be said on how YouTube gives into copyright pressure too easily, it would only get worse if fair use was restricted.

While the changes to fair use are bad enough, we still don’t know the extent of the damage. TPP’s secretive nature has led to it being one of the more problematic treaties of our time. Fortunately, things can change for the better. If Sen. Ron Wyden has his way, TPP would be open for debate in Congress and among the citizenry. That’s really all we can ask for.

Do you think fair use is in danger from TPP? Or are advocacy groups blowing it out of proportion? Let us know in the comments.