Fair use’s fatal conceit
Many of the organizations celebrating fair use would have you believe, because it suits their analysis, that copyright protection and the public interest are diametrically opposed. This is merely a rhetorical device, and is a complete fallacy.
If I weren’t a recovering law professor, I would just end there: that about sums it up, and “the rest is commentary,” as they say. Alas….
All else equal, creators would like as many people to license their works as possible; there’s no inherent incompatibility between “incentives and access” (which is just another version of the fallacious “copyright protection versus the public interest” trope). Everybody wants as much access as possible. Sure, consumers want to pay as little as possible for it, and creators want to be paid as much as possible. That’s a conflict, and at the margin it can seem like a conflict between access and incentives. But it’s not a fundamental, philosophical, and irreconcilable difference — it’s the last 15 minutes of negotiation before the contract is signed.
Reframing what amounts to a fundamental agreement into a pitched battle for society’s soul is indeed a purely rhetorical device — and a mendacious one, at that.
The devil is in the details, of course, and there are still disputes on the margin, as I said. But it helps to know what they’re really about, and why they are so far from the fanciful debates the copyright scolds wish we were having.
First, price is, in fact, a big deal. For the creative industries it can be the difference between, say, making one movie or a hundred, and for artists is can be the difference between earning a livelihood writing songs or packing it in for a desk job.
But despite their occasional lip service to the existence of trade-offs, many “fair-users” see price — i.e., licensing agreements — as nothing less than a threat to social welfare. After all, the logic runs, if copies can be made at (essentially) zero marginal cost, a positive price is just extortion. They say, “more access!,” but they don’t mean, “more access at an agreed-upon price;” they mean “zero-price access, and nothing less.” These aren’t the same thing, and when “fair use” is a stand-in for “zero-price use,” fair-users moving the goalposts — and being disingenuous about it.
The other, related problem, of course, is piracy. Sometimes rightsholders’ objections to the expansion of fair use are about limiting access. But typically that’s true only where fine-tuned contracting isn’t feasible, and where the only realistic choice they’re given is between no access for some people, and pervasive (and often unstoppable) piracy. There are any number of instances where rightsholders have no realistic prospect of efficiently negotiating licensing terms and receiving compensation, and would welcome greater access to their works even without a license — as long as the result isn’t also (or only) excessive piracy. The key thing is that, in such cases, opposition to fair use isn’t opposition to reasonable access, even free access. It’s opposition to piracy.
Time-shifting with VCRs and space-shifting with portable mp3 players (to take two contentious historical examples) fall into this category (even if they are held up — as they often are — by the fair-users as totems of their fanciful battle ). At least at the time of the Sony and Diamond Rio cases, when there was really no feasible way to enforce licenses or charge differential prices for such uses, the choice rightsholders faced was effectively all-or-nothing, and they had to pick one. I’m pretty sure, all else equal, they would have supported such uses, even without licenses and differential compensation — except that the piracy risk was so significant that it swamped the likely benefits, tilting the scale toward “nothing” instead of “all.”
Again, the reality is that creators and rightsholders were confronted with a choice between two imperfect options; neither was likely “right,” and they went with the lesser evil. But one can’t infer from that constrained decision an inherent antipathy to fair use. Sadly, such decisions have to be made in the real world, not law reviews and EFF blog posts. As economists Benjamin Klein, Andres Lerner and Kevin Murphy put it regarding the Diamond Rio case:
[R]ather than representing an attempt by copyright-holders to increase their profits by controlling legally established “fair uses,”… the obvious record-company motivation is to reduce the illegal piracy that is encouraged by the technology. Eliminating a “fair use” [more accurately, “opposing an expansion of fair use” -ed.] is not a benefit to the record companies; it is an unfortunate cost they have to bear to solve the much larger problem of infringing uses. The record companies face competitive pressure to avoid these costs by developing technologies that distinguish infringing from non-infringing copying.
This last point is important, too. Fair-users don’t like technological protection measures, either, even if they actually facilitate licensing and broader access to copyrighted content. But that really just helps to reveal the poverty of their position. They should welcome technology that expands access, even if it also means that it enables rightsholders to fine-tune their licenses and charge a positive price. Put differently: Why do they hate Spotify!?
I’m just hazarding a guess here, but I suspect that the antipathy to technological solutions goes well beyond the short-term limits on some current use of content that copyright minimalists think shouldn’t be limited. If technology, instead of fair use, is truly determinative of the extent of zero-price access, then their ability to seriously influence (read: rein in) the scope of copyright is diminished. Fair use is amorphous. They can bring cases, they can lobby Congress, they can pen strongly worded blog posts, and they can stage protests. But they can’t do much to stop technological progress. Of course, technology does at least as much to limit the enforceability of licenses and create new situations where zero-price access is the norm. But still, R&D is a lot harder than PR.
What’s more, if technology were truly determinative, it would frequently mean that former fair uses could become infringing at some point (or vice versa, of course). Frankly, there’s no reason for time-shifting of TV content to continue to be considered a fair use today. We now have the technology to both enable time shifting and to efficiently license content for the purpose, charge a differential price for it, and enforce the terms. In fact, all of that is so pervasive today that most users do pay for time-shifting technologies, under license terms that presumably define the scope of their right to do so; they just may not have read the contract. Where time-shifting as a fair use rears its ugly head today is in debates over new, infringing technology where, in truth, the fair use argument is really a malleable pretext to advocate for a restriction on the scope of copyright (e.g., Aereo).
In any case, as the success of business models like Spotify and Netflix (to say nothing of Comcast’s X1 interface and new Xfinity Stream app) attest, technology has enabled users to legitimately engage in what was once conceivable seemingly only under fair use. Yes, at a price — one that millions of people are willing to pay. It is surely the case that rightsholders’ licensing of technologies like these have made content more accessible, to more people, and with higher-quality service, than a regime of expansive unlicensed use could ever have done.
At the same time, let’s not forget that, often, even when they could efficiently distribute content only at a positive price, creators offer up scads of content for free, in myriad ways. Sure, the objective is to maximize revenue overall by increasing exposure, price discriminating, or enhancing the quality of paid-for content in some way — but so what? More content is more content, and easier access is easier access. All of that uncompensated distribution isn’t rightsholders nodding toward the copyright scolds’ arguments; it’s perfectly consistent with licensing. Obviously, the vast majority of music, for example, is listened-to subject to license agreements, not because of fair use exceptions or rightsholders’ largesse.
For the vast majority of creators, users and uses, licensed access works, and gets us massive amounts of content and near ubiquitous access. The fair use disputes we do have aren’t really about ensuring broad access; that’s already happening. Rather, those disputes are either niggling over the relatively few ambiguous margins on the one hand, or, on the other, fighting the fair-users’ manufactured, existential fight over whether copyright exceptions will subsume the rule. The former is to be expected: Copyright boundaries will always be imperfect, and courts will always be asked to make the close calls. The latter, however, is simply a drain on resources that could be used to create more content, improve its quality, distribute it more broadly, or lower prices.
Copyright law has always been, and always will be, operating in the shadow of technology — technology both for distribution and novel uses, as well as for pirating content. The irony is that, as digital distribution expands, it has dramatically increased the risk of piracy, even as copyright minimalists argue that the low costs of digital access justify a more expansive interpretation of fair use — which would, in turn, further increase the risk of piracy.
Creators’ opposition to this expansion has nothing to do with opposition to broad access to content, and everything to do with ensuring that piracy doesn’t overwhelm their ability to get paid, and to produce content in the first place.
Even were fair use to somehow disappear tomorrow, there would be more and higher-quality content, available to more people in more places, than ever before. But creators have no interest in seeing fair use disappear. What they do have is an interest in is licensing their content as broadly as possible when doing so is efficient, and in minimizing piracy. Sometimes legitimate fair-use questions get caught in the middle. We could and should have a reasonable debate over the precise contours of fair use in such cases. But the false dichotomy of creators against users makes that extremely difficult. Until the disingenuous rhetoric is clawed back, we’re stuck with needless fights that don’t benefit either users or creators — although they do benefit the policy scolds, academics, wonks and businesses that foment them.