Lawsuit Brought By Cosby Show Production Company Against Documentary Is The Reason We Have Fair Use

from the textbook dept

Looking through the history of our posts on the topics of fair use and fair dealing, you find plenty of examples for why these exceptions to copyright law are so important. These exceptions are, at their heart, designed to be boons to the public in the form of an increased output in creative expression, educational material, and public commentary on matters of public interest by untethering the more restrictive aspects of copyright law from those efforts. Without fair use and fair dealing, copyright laws are open for use as weapons of censorship against unwanted content, rather than being used for their original purpose of increasing expression and content. Still, in the history of those posts, you might struggle to find what you would consider the perfect example of why fair use laws are necessary.

Well, look no more, because we have that example in the case of the production company behind The Cosby Show suing the makers of a documentary entitled Bill Cosby: Fall of an American Icon.

The production company that made The Cosby Show has sued the BBC (.pdf) over a documentary the British network aired about the rape allegations against Bill Cosby. Carsey-Werner, the production company that is the plaintiff in the case, says that the documentary is infringing its copyright because it uses eight audiovisual clips and two musical cues from The Cosby Show

The complaint lists eight video clips that are used in the documentary. All are between seven and 23 seconds long, except for one clip that lasts 51 seconds. Adding together the time that viewers are either seeing a clip or listening to one of the musical cues, lawyers for the plaintiff say that "the Infringed Works were either seen or heard (or both) in Fall for a total of 234 seconds," or a total of 6.5% of the hour-long documentary.

Those clips, totaling less than four minutes of total run-time, were enough for the Carsey-Werner Company to file this suit, complaining that the clips were unlicensed and, therefore, infringing upon its copyright of the show. The complaint also insists that the documentary could have and should have been made without those clips at all, indicating that this is not a fight over lost licensing revenue, but the use of the clips at all. Even more absurdly, the complaint claims that the documentary used the clips because the filmmakers knew that clips of The Cosby Show would "appeal to viewers."

Anyone with a cursory knowledge of fair use laws will realize that the use of the clips in this case is obviously protected for any number of reasons. The clips are short in length and in no way compete with the original show. The purpose of using the clips is not to compete with the show at all, in any case. Finally, the use of the clips is undertaken as part of a commentary on a public and maligned figure in Bill Cosby. Literally everything about this screams for a fair use defense, all the way up to and including the fact that the clips weren't used to "appeal" to viewers at all, but rather to show Cosby's one-time status as an American icon and, I surmise, to give viewers the impression that watching the shows knowing what we know now is just kind of gross. There's simply no way to make this documentary properly without including some clips of the show.

Norma Acland, Carsey-Werner's general counsel, seemed to acknowledge as much when asked if any licensing agreement would even have been entertained.

When I suggested Carsey-Werner might decline to license any clips at all for a documentary about criminal allegations against Bill Cosby, Acland said the right to decline licensing is "one of the major parts of being a copyright owner, isn't it?"

Asked whether Carsey-Werner would have agreed to license clips for the documentary at all, Acland said, "I don't know the answer to that. But at least we would have had the choice, wouldn't we?"

Except that removing that choice from the copyright holder is the very purpose of fair use laws. And it's important too. The Cosby documentary is a perfect example of this: it's about a public figure involved in allegations of sex crimes that are certainly in the public interest, therefore no commentary should be under threat by the copyright holder of that public figure's work. To suggest otherwise is plainly against the public interest and, frankly, more than a bit crazy.

I asked Acland if she was concerned about the possible implications on freedom of speech if copyright owners could stop documentarians from using television clips without permission and payment.

"I didn't realize you wanted to have a conversation about that," she said, declining to answer questions related to free speech.

One imagines Acland will be forced to speak on this topic at trial, should it ever get that far.

Filed Under: bill cosby, copyright, documentary, fair use, the cosby show
Companies: carsey-werner


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  1. identicon
    Thad, 10 Nov 2017 @ 12:27pm

    Re: The documentary could stop the show's revenue stream

    But since the production company can't sue over true facts, they have to sue over copyright.

    Suing over true facts wouldn't have any less basis in law than this copyright suit has.


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