Whatever Happened to Playing Fair?

A few recent intellectual property disputes have highlighted the fact that the decision to pursue legal action is both a legal and a moral choice.  While concepts such as "fair use" help to ensure protection of both intellectual property rights while promoting creative expression, they can't replace a simple concept we all learned in kindergarten:  "treat others the way you’d like them to treat you."

A couple of days ago, New York TV news station CW 11 convinced YouTube to take down a video from prank group Improv Everywhere that copied part of a CW 11 newscast.  The twist as that the CW 11 newscast itself copied an earlier Improv video to unintentionally hilarious effect.

In the original Improv video, the troupe hijacked a staged funeral as an April Fools Day prank on viewers and passers-by.  CW 11 reported the hijacking as a real prank on real funeral-goers that might have gone too far.  The newscasters missed the fact that the prank wasn't on the fake funeral-goers but, instead, on those who believed the video was real.

Judged solely on the legal merits, CW 11 might have the (slight) upper hand on the competing questions of infringement.  CW 11 used only snippets of the Improv video and added news commentary, while Improv seems to have simply lifted a portion of CW 11 broadcast and uploaded it as is.  Its arguable whether Improv has a fair use argument:  the group does have in its favor that the use was noncommercial and it put the clip in wildly different context -- that is, exposing CW 11's blunder.

Regardless of the legal merits, there is no reason for copyright law to be involved here.  CW 11 borrowed from Improv, and Improv then borrowed from CW 11.  Both created expression that would not have been possible otherwise.  If not for this needless legal dispute, we would all win.

A even more disappointing recent example comes from "fair use" darling Shepard Fairey.  For those who haven't been following along, he's the defendant in the Associated Press' big copyright flap over the Obama "HOPE" poster.

Last month, Fairey's company Obey Giant Art Inc. alleged trademark violations in a cease-and-desist letter to Larkin Werner, a Pittsburgh Steelers fan who created a character that plays off of Fairey's "Obey" images.  Dubbed "Steelerbaby," Werner's character is a baby doll in a knit Steelers uniform who appears in images and merchandise, typically accompanied by an admonishment to "Obey" or "Obey Steelerbaby."

Fairey has built a career and no small amount of celebrity by creating new art from existing material.  The Obama poster, based upon a photo allegedly owned by AP, is a notable example.  Werner's Steelerbaby, which is more Internet meme than profitmaking venture, is no different.  Like CW 11, Fairey might have the better end of the legal argument, but a little dose of common good sense shows that he (or his company) doesn't have it "right."

It's my humble opinion that our IP system can only function alongside free creative expression if IP-holders -- and IP-holder's lawyers -- first ask not whether they can win, but whether they should draw the line in the sandbox at all.

You can follow the CW 11 v. Improv Everywhere situation in the CMLP Threats Database.

(Matt C. Sanchez is a third-year law student at Harvard Law School and the CMLP's Legal Threats Editor.  The above is cross-posted from The Legal Satyricon, and Matt has a new blog at Florida Media Lawyer.)

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