20 Years Ago 2 Live Crew, A Rude Rap Song And The Supreme Court Helped Clear The Way For The Modern Internet

from the fair-use-lives dept

A couple months ago, we had a blog post celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision that showed the Sony Betamax was legal, an important ruling that helped clear the field for innovations that could, potentially, be used for infringement, so long as they also had substantial non-infringing uses. Today is the anniversary of another important copyright decision. Twenty years ago today, the Supreme Court made a key ruling in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose, emphasizing that fair use can absolutely still apply for commercial use. That ruling is tremendously important to the history of the internet.

The case, if you don't recall, involved the rap group 2 Live Crew's song "Pretty Woman," which was a take on Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman." And while a lower court tossed out the fair use question by saying that it was "presumptively unfair" due to being a commercial parody, the Supreme Court noted that commercial use can still be fair use, and that the "more transformative the new work, the less will be the significance of other factors, like commercialism, that may weigh against a finding of fair use." That is, while commercial use is still a factor in determining fair use, if a work is transformative, whether or not it's a commercial use matters much less. That has very important consequences for all sorts of fair use today, including in television, movies, books and news.

Unfortunately, as Matt Schruers notes above, it's also a ruling that is frequently ignored or forgotten by many who think they understand copyright. The number of times we've had commenters here state that something can't be fair use if it's for commercial use is quite incredible, but at least we can assume those people just don't know. Where it gets especially troubling is when people whose job it is to know and understand this stuff seem to ignore it:
It is odd but true that the significance of commercial fair use is often lost in the copyright conversation.  A recent House Judiciary hearing on fair use underrepresented the significance of fair use to business, and just this week I sat through a policy event where a speaker confidently declared U.S. trade policy need not address fair use because fair use deals only with “non-commercial” use — blissfully unaware, it would seem, that a unanimous Court thought otherwise.  The most recent numbers available suggest that about 17% of U.S. GDP was produced by industries benefiting from fair use and other exceptions to copyright, and that the same industries (increasingly, high-value services) now lead export growth.  As a result, other jurisdictions have realized that U.S. copyright law’s hospitality to basic, essential Internet functions like search is a national competitive advantage.
And this is an issue that is only going to become more important. As more and more things move online, there are ever greater questions about fair use in the context of internet services. The fact that this ruling helped cement the importance of transformative use, and made it clear that commercial use can be fair use, is a key part of why the internet can function today without all sorts of cloud and internet services being sued out of existence.

Filed Under: 2 live crew, copyright, fair use, pretty woman, supreme court


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Mar 2014 @ 2:11pm

    yet every day the entertainment industries fight to sue people and fight to get these decisions overturned. why is that? they didn't manage to bribe the correct judges at the time or they think that after 20years, everything is going to be forgotten so they can go back to court and win this time? that may not be so bad as long as all the other decisions that went the industries way can be retried as well! as it is, the most ridiculous law that was made specifically for those industries was that circumventing DRM is forbidden. what the fuck were those dozy fuckers in Congress thinking? that had ruled that it was not illegal to make a back up of a bought disk, but then chucked this little gem in! Jeez! i have more brains in my ball bag!!

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