A New Approach to Copyright Exceptions and Limitations

*Guest post by Jonathan Band, policybandwidth*

Any discussion with policymakers or rightsholders concerning the possible adoption of new copyright exceptions and limitations invariably centers on how to make sure that the exception is not abused. This leads to lengthy negotiations resulting in complex, difficult-to-use provisions that resemble the tax code. This pattern has been repeated in connection to the exceptions to section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the TEACH Act for distance education (17 U.S.C. § 110(2)), the Chafee Amendment for the print disabled (17 U.S.C. § 121), and orphan works legislation, to name just a few of the more salient examples.

It’s time for this pattern to be broken. Rightsholders have nothing to fear from exceptions and their possible abuse. Infringement deriving from abuse of exceptions likely would be a tiny fraction of the overall incidence of infringement. At the same time, preventing the public benefits that flow from exceptions undermines the purpose of the copyright system.

Section 108

Unfortunately, this pattern of developing overly restrictive exceptions may soon repeat itself in the context of the exception for libraries and archives in 17 U.S.C. § 108. In 2005, the Library of Congress and the Copyright Office convened a study group consisting of librarians and publishers to consider how to update section 108 for the digital age. After three contentious years, the study group issued a report recommending several possible amendments to section 108, but could not reach consensus on the details of those amendments, nor on how to handle other important issues such as copies for users or license restrictions.

Notwithstanding this lack of consensus, and over the objection of most libraries and archives, the Copyright Office has decided to urge Congress to revise section 108. This past June, the Copyright Office issued a notice of inquiry stating that it seeks “to finalize its legislative recommendation” concerning a “re-drafting” of section 108. In meetings with stakeholders pursuant to this notice of inquiry, the Copyright Office stated that it hopes to complete its legislative recommendation and transmit it to Congress this fall.

Although the Copyright Office hopes to make section 108 simpler and more user-friendly, the Office’s likely concern about “leakage” almost certainly guarantees that the re-drafted section 108 will be complicated and not understandable by librarians without law degrees. And even if the Office somehow manages to produce a streamlined and comprehensible proposal, the rightsholders can be expected to insist on changes to eliminate possible abuse that will inevitably make the proposal more complex.

There is no doubt that digital networks have facilitated copyright infringement. And while the adverse impact of this infringement probably has been overstated by rightsholders, it is perfectly legitimate for rightsholders to take reasonable measures to address infringement. The operative word here is reasonable. And making exceptions for libraries, educational institutions, or the print disabled difficult to use in order to reduce potential leakage is not reasonable.

There are approximately 200 million smartphone users in the United States, and 2 billion smartphone users worldwide. Each smartphone has the capability of reproducing entire copyrighted works and uploading them to the Internet, where they can be disseminated globally. In a world where this technological capability is literally at the fingertips of so many users, what possible difference could it make if there is a small amount of leakage from a library?

Consider the following examples. Under existing section 108(c), a library is permitted to make a replacement copy of a published work that is damaged or lost if the library determines that an unused replacement cannot be obtained at a fair price. While the library may circulate a physical replacement copy, it cannot make a copy available in a digital format outside the library premises. The Section 108 study group recommended modifying the prohibition on off-site lending of digital replacement copies only to allow the lending of a copy reproduced in a digital physical medium if the library’s original copy was also in a digital physical medium. In other words, if the library owned an audiobook CD that was deteriorating, the study group proposal would allow the library to make and lend a replacement CD, but it would not be able to stream the digital file to a user. Similarly, if its original copy wasn’t digital, the library would not be able to make a digital copy viewable outside of the library premises.

The publishers in the Section 108 study group insisted on these restrictions because they were afraid that the digital files would be retransmitted on the Internet. This concern overlooks four facts. First, the exception would only be available if a replacement copy couldn’t be purchased, i.e., the work was out of print so there would be no market harm, even if unlawful retransmission occurred. Second, unlawful copies of any work for which there is current and likely future demand are already available online, so how much incremental harm could be caused by unlawful retransmission of the library’s replacement copy? Third, technological measures exist to make retransmission difficult. Fourth, as fair use jurisprudence has evolved, making the digital copy available outside the library premises with appropriate technological protections likely would be a fair use. In other words, the library could probably engage in the activity anyway under a fair use theory, so why not save the library the burden of performing the fair use analysis and simply permit it under an explicit exception?

A similar analysis could be performed for many of the study group’s other recommendations. For example, the proposed exception for the archiving of publicly accessible websites was unnecessarily regulatory, especially considering that commercial entities such as Google and Microsoft routinely engage in this activity under a fair use theory.

It is the awareness that section 108 reform will be extremely contentious and unlikely to produce positive results that has led to library opposition to the Copyright Office’s initiative.

Section 1201 Rulemaking

Likewise, the exemptions that the Library of Congress has adopted during the course of the triennial rulemaking under section 1201 of the DMCA reflect an unhealthy obsession with possible abuse. The current exemption, adopted in 2015, permits circumvention of the technological protections on lawfully acquired motion pictures by college and university faculty and students, for use of short portions for educational purposes “in film studies or other courses requiring close analysis of film and media excerpts…where the person engaging in circumvention reasonably believes that screen-capture software or other non-circumventing alternatives are unable to produce the required level of high-quality content.” Thus, an instructor or a student may circumvent only after determining that no alternative to circumvention will produce the “level of high-quality content.” This would necessitate that the instructor or student determine: 1) whether the course requires “close analysis of film and media excerpts;” 2) what level of quality excerpt she needs to satisfy her educational purpose; 3) what are the various available alternatives to circumvention; and 4) whether any of these alternatives will produce the required level of quality excerpt. In the K-12 context, this exemption is available only to instructors, not students.

The Copyright Office designed an exemption that requires educational users to jump through many hoops so as to ensure that the exemption is not abused. At the insistence of rightsholders, the Copyright Office evidently considers circumvention to be a highly dangerous activity that leaves films vulnerable to widespread infringement, and thus must be regulated carefully. However, there is no evidence that any infringement resulted from earlier iterations of the exemption that were more straightforward. Further, the software necessary to circumvent the technological protection measures on DVDs or other storage media is widely available on the Internet and easy to use. Moreover, infringing copies of most films can be found on the Internet soon after release. Thus, a simple, broad circumvention exemption for any educational use would not harm the market for the films in any meaningful way. (At one time, some film studios planned to create a market for licensing film clips to educational institutions, but the enormous number of works educators need to access made development of such a market infeasible.)

A New Approach

Rightsholders’ frustration with their loss of control over their content is understandable. It also is understandable that this frustration would fuel a desire to exercise control wherever they can, even though it makes no difference to their bottom line.

Although the rightsholders’ frustration is understandable, it is bad copyright policy to impose the costs of overly restrictive exceptions on libraries and educational institutions where there is no offsetting benefit to rightsholders or society at large. As the Supreme Court recently stated in Kirtsaeng v. Wiley, “copyright law ultimately serves the purpose of enriching the general public through access to creative works.” The Supreme Court then explained that “the statute achieves that end by striking a balance between two subsidiary aims: encouraging and rewarding authors’ creations while enabling others to build on that work.” Exceptions and limitations are the means to achieve the aim of enabling others to build on a work.

Rather than fight reasonable adjustments to Title 17 to accommodate digital technology, rightsholders should embrace them. This not only would better meet the objectives of the copyright system, it also would be in the long run best interest of rightsholders. Instead of advocating for narrow section 1201 exemptions for educational uses of film clips, studios should encourage the broadest possible use of films in classrooms. Doing so would more deeply entrench the role of films in American culture and society.

Similarly, publishers should facilitate libraries making the robust use of their collections. Libraries spend $4 billion a year acquiring books and other materials. The more access libraries are able to provide to their collections—the more libraries are used—the easier it is for libraries to secure the budget they need to purchase more materials. Additionally, greater access to written materials encourages literacy, which in turn leads to greater demand for written materials. Finally, for many users, the alternative to accessing materials through libraries would not be to purchase the materials, but to find infringing copies on the Internet.

The same logic applies to remixes and fan fiction. More enlightened rightsholders have recognized that these activities deepen fan loyalty and result in increased sales. Additionally, these activities train the next generation of artists. And of course, reasonable exceptions enhance the credibility of the copyright system generality.

In short, rightsholders should stop treating libraries and educational institutions—their biggest customers—as their copyright enemies, and instead assist them in promoting the creation and dissemination of culture by supporting the broadest possible copyright exceptions. If rightsholders can’t change direction on their own, policymakers in Congress, the Copyright Office, and the Executive Branch should lead the way. But until rightsholders and policymakers change their approach to exceptions, attempts to fashion new exceptions will largely be exercises in futility.


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