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Fair Use is Essential But its Enforcement is Broken, Says Senate Intellectual Property Subcommittee

Elijah Labby

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Screenshot of Grammy-winning recording artist Yolanda Adams from the hearing

July 28, 2020 — “Fair use” is an essential doctrine of copyright law that is unevenly applied, said participants in a Senate Intellectual Property Subcommittee hearing Tuesday.

The hearing, “How Does the DMCA Contemplate Limitations and Exceptions Like Fair Use,” saw participants discuss whether the Digital Millennium Copyright Act still permits fair uses of copyrighted content that would be otherwise infringing.

The DMCA, passed in 1998, criminalizes the manufacture, sale or other distribution of technologies designed to decrypt encoded copyrighted material. This ban on anti-circumvention tools does not appear to account for fair use.

The fair use exception to copyright law allows the republication or redistribution of copyrighted works for commentary, criticism or educational purposes without having to obtain permission from the copyright holder.

However, Joseph Gratz, partner at Durie Tangri, said that fair use often clearly applies but is not enforced, leaving users of the legally obtained content to deal with automated content censors.

“Fair use depends on context, and machines can’t consider context,” he said. “A video, for example, that incidentally captures a song playing in the background at a political rally or a protest is clearly fair use but may be detected by an automated filter.”

When an automated filter detects a song on a platform like YouTube, it redirects advertising revenue from the creator of the video to the creator of the song, often erroneously.

Rick Beato, who owns a music education YouTube channel with over one-and-a-half million subscribers, said that he does not receive ad revenue from hundreds of his videos.

“One of my recent videos called ‘The Mixolydian Mode’ was manually claimed by Sony ATV because I played ten seconds of a Beatles song on my acoustic guitar to demonstrate how the melody is derived from the scale,” he said. “This is an obvious example of fair use, I would argue.”

Grammy-winning recording artist Yolanda Adams testified that she sees the problems of fair use employment as about more than simply receiving money.

“As a gospel artist, I’m not just an entertainer,” she said. “I see my mission as using my gift to spread the gospel — so for me, fair use is not just about money. It’s about access.”

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