from the it's-your-rights dept
Today is day five of Copyright Week, where the focus is on fair use. Earlier today we already had Michael Petricone's excellent post about the innovations and consumer benefits unleashed by the Betamax ruling, which hinged on the concept of fair use. Over at Wired, Automattic's (the makers of WordPress) general counsel, Paul Sieminski, also has a great post talking about how much innovation is enabled by fair use and why companies should be fighting more to support their users' fair use rights. Meanwhile, over at Public Knowledge, there's a good discussion of how the flexibility of fair use is important in enabling it to respond to new innovations. These are all great ways of looking at the issue.
I wanted to focus on a different aspect of fair use, however, and that's the unfortunate fact that it is often described (especially in official political discussions) as an "exception or limitation" to copyright. That implies, incorrectly, that copyright is "the normal state" and that fair use is something that can only be used in "exceptional" cases, where a political body has decided to carve out some small breathing space. But that's wrong. Fair use is about the rights of the public to speak, to make use of content, to comment, to criticize and to express themselves.
These are fundamental rights of the public -- not "exceptions or limitations."
It is, instead, copyright that has always been an "exception and limitation" on the rights to free expression. We can (and should) discuss and debate the proper levels of copyright and its limitations on expression. But to frame things as if fair use is a minor "exception" is a subtle but dangerous twist of language that copyright maximalists have been employing for far too long.
And it's a public right that is under threat. While negotiators were (after decades of negotiating) able to work out a WIPO Treaty for the Blind last year, copyright maximalists fought hard against it, because they were convinced that any attempt to expand what they called "limitations and exceptions" would set a dangerous precedent. And, if you look at things like the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP agreement), the USTR tried to take credit for it being the first time that it was willing to include "limitations and exceptions" in a trade agreement. That, on its face, is true (and it's better than previous agreements, like ACTA, which ignored fair use and the public's rights entirely), but the wording does not in fact establish any limitations or exceptions: it sets out parameters that curb what limitations and exceptions countries are allowed to offer. The wording is based on a three-factor standard that is actually more restrictive than current fair use laws in the US. The standard is clearly modelled after the Berne convention, to which the US is already a signatory despite several differences, such as fair use, between US copyright law and that treaty's requirements. The TPP's "exceptions" would only serve to solidify these inflexible fair use requirements that the US currently, mercifully, defies.
Pay close attention to this issue as we go through the copyright reform process. Fair use isn't just some limitation or exception. It's not just -- as some have said -- a "valve" on copyright restricting speech. It is, instead, core to the very concept of free speech. It is the public's rights. Don't let the language twisters try to frame the debate as one about "limitations and exceptions" because if that's the debate, we've already lost. Fair use doesn't just enable all kinds of important innovations -- including much of the internet you use and love today. It represents a fundamental right of you to express yourself, and that right must not be taken away.