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 3. We decided to omit the footnotes for this posting, but you can read the whole brief here.
I. INDEPENDENT ARTISTS AND SONGWRITERS RELY ON COPYRIGHT
PROTECTION AND CLEAR FAIR USE STANDARDS TO DEFEND THEMSELVES
IN THE MARKET (continued from Part 2).
Google interacts with the music industry in a variety of ways, but primarily through its YouTube video platform. YouTube is by far the world’s most popular music streaming service, with over 1.9 billion registered users as of June 2018. It is much, much
larger than subscription-based services like Spotify (with 160 million users) or Apple Music (with 45 million users). According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, nearly half of all streaming users consume music on YouTube. It is hard to be in the music business online and not do business with YouTube.
And in turn, music is a large part of YouTube’s business. As of Jan 2020, 93% of the most-watched videos were music videos.” Kit Smith, 54 Fascinating and Incredible YouTube Statistics, Brandwatch (Jan. 17, 2020) available at https://www.brandwatch.com/blog/youtube-stats/; “47% of time spent listening to on-demand music is on YouTube,” Music Consumer Insight Report, International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) at 13 (2018). This revenue accrues to Google’s great benefit, with its parent company Alphabet reporting more than $15 billion in revenue from YouTube last year alone.
Unfortunately, despite YouTube’s market success, revenue does not proportionately flow back to copyright owners. In the aggregate, advertising-supported free streaming services (of which YouTube is by far the largest) contributed one-third of all streams in 2018, but only 8% of total revenue. See Recording Industry Association of America, RIAA 2018 Year End Music Revenue Report (Feb. 2019). YouTube’s royalty rates are consistently lowest among the top digital music services. In fairness, Google does contract with aggregators representing independents to collect YouTube royalties, such as Audiam.
However, in Amici’s experience, YouTube is the primary music service that actually incorporates an ad hoc and arbitrary exploitation of copyright safe harbors
and exceptions like fair use as a part of its largely advertising-supported business model which is grounded substantially on “user-generated content” or “UGC.”
Therefore, YouTube is incentivized to unfairly attempt over and again to utilize narrow, statutory exceptions to copyright protection, including the fair use doctrine, on a seemingly ad hoc and extremely expansive basis to undermine the very protections that
creators rely on. This unpredictable fiat guides YouTube’s partners toward monetizing their UGC—which generates a reward of revenue that YouTube shares with the partner. Google’s exploitation of fair use as a business significantly increases the transaction cost of dealing with YouTube beyond what independents like Amici can reasonably afford. It sure costs a lot of money to give things away for free.
This is particularly true since independents cannot credibly use litigation as leverage against a commercial giant. Examples of these costs include engaging services to identify infringements and send takedown notices under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (hereinafter DMCA) for infringing links in search or on YouTube, or analyzing fair use claims in counternotifications. See 17 U.S.C. §§ 512(c)(1)(C), 512(g). Nor are these costs common across other ad-supported digital music services. For example, Amici
do not bear these high transaction costs with other ad-supported digital music services such as Spotify’s free version.
It appears to Amici that Google’s business model, both with YouTube and with its verbatim copying in Android, are prime examples of what one of Google’s
amici has repeatedly proclaimed to be the “fair use industries.”
Amici—like most creators—do not think of fair use as the basis for an “industry” whose “rights” can be asserted separately from authorship furthered by reliable rules of copyright protection and narrow exceptions under individualized, special circumstances.
If fair use were an “industry,” Amici would be rendered into both the unlicensed input and the royalty-free output of that economic sector, destroying the market balance that has developed under copyright regimes over a period of centuries. Rather, fair use is a
statutory defense that permits creators to use copyrighted materials for well-defined and generally noncommercial or noncompeting purposes. Without copyright, of course, there is no fair use. At best, the notion of “fair use industries” and its protection is a non-sequitur. At worst, it is a destroyer of markets and eventually of national cultures.
In short, the “fair use industries” spin is Google’s attempt to invent cover for its extremely predatory market practices against creators. Amici are concerned that “fair use industries” are merely those markets in which Google’s monopoly power permits it to simply ignore the copyright interests of other market actors (including and especially independent creators) and call its conduct fair use, safe in the knowledge that challenging Google in court is a nonstarter for most independents. This spin is bolstered through funding academic research as well as outright lobbying and strategic litigation that consistently weakens copyright and undermines creators. Even Google’s amici in this appeal include individuals paid by or otherwise associated with Google. See Br. of 83 Computer Scientists at A1 n.1.
In fact, Google reportedly said as much to former Prime Minister David Cameron when lobbying him in 2011 to amend UK copyright laws to remove “barriers to new internet-based business models” raised by the “costs of obtaining permissions from existing rightsholders.” Adam Sherwin, David Cameron’s “Google-Model” Vision for Copyright Under Fire, The Guardian (March 14, 2011) (“[Prime Minister Cameron’s announcement] was greeted with unalloyed delight at Google’s California HQ—and left the music industry, ravaged by web piracy, with that all too familiar sinking feeling.”).
Of course, Google’s responses are essentially the same each time—as they are [in the Oracle case]. Google wields a variety of weaponized copyright exceptions on top of rhetoric that is both deceptively public-spirited (letting Google win is “promoting innovation”) and ominous (impeding Google would “break the internet”). Google further seeks to justify these exceptions by trying to hide behind small players. It engages in astroturfing tactics to give the impression that it has more public support than it does.
All of this is on display in Google’s brief and its many amicus briefs. See, e.g., Pet. Br. 44 (“Android is an open source initiative that benefits hundreds of device manufacturers, millions of developers, and more than a billion consumers around the world.”), 45
(Android “enabled Java developers to unleash their creativity” by using Google’s platform), 49 (“Android benefitted Oracle”); 50 (finding against Google “would
disrupt the ongoing development of modern, interoperable computer software”).
[To be continued: Google’s Use Is Clearly Commercial]