Google’s Fair Use Industries Part 2: Supreme Court Brief of @davidclowery, @helienne, @theblakemorgan and @sgawrites in Google v. Oracle

Google’s appeal of its major loss to Oracle on fair use is shaping up to be the most important copyright case of the year, if not the decade.  It could set fair use standards for years to come.  We’re going to be posting installments from the friend of the court brief that David, Helienne, Blake and The Songwriters Guild filed in the U.S. Supreme Court supporting Oracle in the Google v. Oracle fair use case.  This is part 2.  We decided to omit the footnotes for this posting, but you can read the whole brief here.

Cover Page
Cover Page of Friend of the Court Brief



Copyright is of critical importance to independent creators and artists. It is not empty rhetoric to say that without the statutory and constitutional protections of copyright, professional creators could not earn their livings and simply would not produce new works, and the world would be poorer for it.  The reason is simple but profound: copyright protection allows for a vibrant creative environment in which artists can predictably recover the gains of their creative labors. See U.S. Const. Art. I, § 8, cl. 8; see also Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. v. Nation Enters., 471 U.S. 539, 558 (1985) (“By establishing a marketable right to the use of one’s expression, copyright supplies the economic incentive to create and disseminate ideas.”). Because Congress has codified this incentive structure through centuries of copyright legislation, independent artists
and songwriters regularly rely on the exercise of their exclusive rights by creating, reproducing, distributing and publicly performing their works.

Importantly, these rights are not just abstractions.  They tangibly alter the licensing negotiations vital to a modern creative ecosystem. An exclusive right to exploit a creative work (such as a musical composition or a sound recording) can be the only backstop against markets where the marginal cost to digitally create perfect copies of an original is nil. See Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd., 545 U.S. 913, 928 (2005) (noting “digital distribution of copyrighted material threatens copyright holders as never before, because every copy is identical to the original [and] copying is easy”). These burdens do not fall solely on creators of sound recordings or musical compositions, but extend across copyrightable subject matter, including visual arts, motion pictures, and literary works such as novels or software. See 17 U.S.C. §§ 101, 102(a).

To be sure, independent creators may also benefit from uses that fall under the category of fair use. Fair use helps disseminate the artist’s work to the larger culture, and increases the amplitude and quality of discourse within and surrounding the work—all without compromising the work’s value. See Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 510 U.S. 569, 578 (1994) (noting fair use must be analyzed “in light of thepurposes of copyright”); Pierre N. Leval, Toward a Fair Use Standard, 103 Harv. L. Rev. 1105, 1107 (1990). (“[f]air use should be perceived . . . as a rational, integral part of copyright, whose observance is
necessary to achieve the objectives of that law.”). It is therefore not surprising that a significant number of fair use cases arise in the music business. See, e.g., Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, 510 U.S. 569 (1994); Estate of Smith v. Graham, No. 19-28 (2d Cir. Feb. 3,
2020); Capitol Records, LLC v. ReDigi Inc., No. 16-2321 (2d Cir. Dec. 12, 2018); Lennon v. Premise Media Corp., 556 F. Supp. 2d 310 (S.D.N.Y. 2008); Fisher v. Dees, 794 F.2d 432 (9th Cir. 1986); Elsmere Music, Inc. v. Nat’l Broad. Co., 482 F. Supp. 741 (S.D.N.Y.), aff’d, 632
F.2d 252 (2d Cir. 1980).

Yet these fair use benefits only accrue when the analysis is predictable, consistent, and respectful of the underlying existing copyright incentives for original creation. Under such market conditions, independent creators nearly always stand ready to license their works at a fair market rate to those who respect their rights. This is how fair use works effectively within the creative industries. On the other hand, the more amorphous and unreasonably expansive the analysis and application of the fair use doctrine, the harder it becomes to establish the value of the copyrighted work during licensing negotiations that are the lifeblood of the creative ecosystem.

In the modern music business, such licensing negotiations are intricate and delicate. The exclusive rights guaranteed by the U.S. Copyright Act have allowed independent songwriters, recording artists and labels to contract with distributors such as Audiam, CD
Baby, INgrooves, Merlin Network, The Orchard and TuneCore. These aggregators in turn sublicense collectively to interactive, on-demand digital delivery services like Amazon Music, Apple Music, Deezer, iTunes, Google Play Music, Pandora, and Spotify in return for royalties that the aggregators pay to their songwriter or artist licensees.

SoundExchange, for example, administers the limited statutory performance license for
noninteractive exploitations of sound recordings. See 17 U.S.C. § 114. Through this statutory scheme, SoundExchange oversees the statutory license of sound recordings used by many noninteractive services such as Pandora, SiriusXM, iHeart Radio and other Internet radio services as well as business establishments. Meanwhile, performing rights organizations like ASCAP, BMI, Global Music Rights and SESAC collectively license the public performance of the corresponding compositions.

Artists and songwriters rely on this intricate market system of licensing that is entirely based on the exclusive rights of copyright owners and the traditionally reasonable application of the fair use doctrine. These market practices have, over the past two decades, undergone a metamorphosis, as new customs evolved in the digital age, emerging once again into a predictable licensing landscape. The exclusive rights that independents enjoy as copyright owners allow them to compete with the licensing, distribution and marketing operations of major labels and music publishers—when those rights are respected.

And that is where Google’s seemingly perpetual campaign for fair use expansion becomes a major hindrance in the equitable and efficient functioning of
the marketplace.

[To be continued]