Fair Use and Captioning for Those Who are Hearing Impaired

This week is Fair Use/Fair Dealing Week, an annual celebration of the important doctrines of fair use and fair dealing. It is designed to highlight and promote the opportunities presented by fair use and fair dealing, celebrate successful stories, and explain these doctrines.

Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), proponents must file for an exemption every three years to allow for the circumvention of technological protection measures (TPMs) to do things that are otherwise completely lawful under copyright. For example, groups representing those who are visually impaired must ask for the right to circumvent TPMs in order to enable the text-to-speech function on e-readers, even though they do not have to ask for permission to create accessible format copy works for hard copy materials. Even if the use is clearly a fair use, because of ambiguity in the text of the DMCA, individuals or groups must request exemptions for non-infringing uses.

ARL, as part of the Library Copyright Alliance (LCA), is consistently involved in the triennial rulemaking process. Among other petitions, LCA joined in a request to allow for circumvention to create accessible formats of motion pictures to those with disabilities, included through captions and audio descriptions.

Recently, rightsholders submitted opposition to exemption requests and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Association of American Publishers (AAP) oppose the exemption for captioning.

The MPAA argues against captioning qualifying as a fair use. In doing so, the MPAA relies on the Register of Copyright’s conclusion in the 2012 rulemaking process that, “neither Sony-Betamax nor the Copyright Act’s legislative history suggests a rule that all reproduction, adaptation and distribution for the purpose of accessibility is fair use.” The MPAA also criticizes the citation of Authors Guild v. HathiTrust as authority favoring a fair use determination.

The MPAA claims that HathiTrust is not applicable because HathiTrust was making text accessible for people that have print disabilities rather than hearing disabilities:

In HathiTrust, defendants were, among other things, making “text-to-speech” versions of literary works so that they would be accessible to the print disabled. Altering motion pictures is a significantly different undertaking, the result of which is likely a derivative work that involves a creative interpretation of the underlying work. Thus, the proponent’s reliance on HathiTrust is misplaced.

While it is true that the facts in HathiTrust involved accessible formats for those with print disabilities rather than those with hearing impairments, the decision in HathiTrust is still highly relevant. Ultimately, the purpose in creating an accessible format work for someone who is visually impaired and an accessible format work for someone who is hearing impaired is the same: to allow someone with a disability to have access to information and culture. Without accessible formats, those with hearing impairments—just as those with visual impairments—would lack access. Indeed, the court in HathiTrust cites the Supreme Court case, Sony Corp. v. Universal City Studios for the proposition that creating an accessible format work for the convenience of a person with a visual disability does not require anything more than the purpose of entertaining or informing to render the use fair.

Creation of captions for those with hearing impairments is clearly analogous to the creation of a Braille or audio format for someone with a visual impairment. It’s unfortunate that rightholders would argue against accessibility for the hearing impaired as a fair use. Without available captions, those who are deaf or hearing impaired do not have equal access to information.