Earlier this week I published an op-ed at Al Jazeera America on the latest news from the Oracle v. Google litigation. Of note, a few weeks ago the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled that Google had infringed on copyrights Oracle apparently had in its APIs for Java. My column explains in more depth what’s so problematic about this ruling – particularly as it bears on future innovation – but I want to highlight one particular point I made in more depth here:
[T]he court left open the question of whether Google’s use of the APIs was permissible under the doctrine of fair use. But having to hope that fair use might provide a defense for copyright infringement creates a chilling amount of uncertainty for the innovator. As noted copyright academic Lawrence Lessig famously observed, “Fair use is the right to hire a lawyer.” In other words, the costs to innovate dramatically expand when you need to defend what you’ve developed on the basis of fair use. It is much better for all who depend on APIs to innovate for them not to be copyrightable at all, as there will never be a need to defend one’s use against claims of infringement for something that couldn’t be infringed in the first place. (emphasis added here)
I decided I wanted to hammer home this point after I saw this post I saw at the Volokh Conspiracy analyzing whether posting cease and desist letters potentially violated copyright. The problem was that the analysis went from this:
A. Letters are indeed presumptively protected by copyright. Generally speaking, pretty much anything that’s at all original (not necessarily innovative, but just the author’s own writing) and longer than several words is indeed copyrighted the moment it’s written down.
immediately to this:
B. But this presumption can be rebutted if the person copying the work shows (among other things) that his use is a “fair use” of the work. Here’s a quick run-through of the four fair use factors, and how they apply to such uses of cease-and-desist letters…
My point here is not to pick on Eugene Volokh. His ultimate conclusion of non-infringement is reasonable and well-supported by his fair use analysis. The problem, though, is that in getting to that conclusion I think he made a mistake many others are inclined to make: fair use does not rebut a presumption of copyrightability; it only potentially rebuts a presumption of infringement.
This distinction between presumptions of copyrightability and infringement is important because, as the op-ed says, if there is no copyright there can be no infringement. Thus it’s extremely important not to short circuit that initial analysis as to the former. Copyright can be an extremely potent weapon, but only when it actually exists. Failing to fully consider whether it does would be as foolish as defending against a gunman it turns out is only armed with a twinkie. Although as Volokh suggests copyright can very easily apply to many if not most original works, as the Oracle case discussed, it definitely doesn’t apply to all of them. Like the lower court had found in that case, copyright statute and doctrine explicitly exempt certain original works from copyright and for very good reasons, reasons that we undermine when we presumptively credit a work with more copyright than it may deserve.