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Michael C. Donaldson, Refuge From The Storm: A Fair Use Safe Harbor For Non-Fiction Works, 59 J. Copyright Soc’y U.S.A. 477 (2012), available at SSRN.

When is a use of a copyrighted work a fair use? This issue has grown in significance with the increase in the economic value of copyrighted works and in the ways in which users can distribute, rework, or otherwise borrow from copyrighted works. The fair-use inquiry is contextual, formally focusing on the nature and purpose of a use, the creative nature of the work, the amount of the work used, and the effect of the use on the copyright owner’s ability to economically exploit the work. For some, fair use’s attention to context renders it an unreliable ally for the diligent user.

However, a number of commentators, including this one,1 have argued that the multifactor inquiry does not lead truly to “case-by-case” adjudication. Instead, the principles of fair use protect certain identifiable patterns or bundles of uses with soft rules while remaining sufficiently open textured to balance interests implicated by new or emerging patterns of use. Others have gone further. My colleagues Peter Jaszi and Patricia Aufderheide have worked with creative communities to identify and articulate best practices in fair use in the context of their patterns of use as described in their recent book Reclaiming Fair Use.

Comes now Michael Donaldson to articulate the soft rule—or in his words the “safe harbor”—that applies when one seeks to make a fair use of a copyrighted work in a new work of non-fiction. Donaldson’s analysis flows not only from his reading of judicial opinions but also from his practice counseling clients and providing formal opinions of counsel that make reliance on fair use an insurable risk for documentary filmmakers, among others.

His article is a worthwhile read for many reasons. On its own terms, the article yields an important and useful insight into the unstated rules of decision that courts use when applying fair use in this context. Donaldson helpfully, and in my view, correctly, identifies the real concerns that animate decision-making. He argues that a fair-use decision-maker is likely to ask the following three questions about the use of a copyrighted work or “asset” in a new work of non-fiction:

  1. Does the asset illustrate or support a point that the creator is trying to make in the new work?
  1. Does the creator of the new work use only as much of the asset as is reasonably appropriate to illustrate or support the point being made?
  1. Is the connection between the point being made and the asset being used to illustrate or support the point clear to the average viewer?

Donaldson argues that when the answer to all three questions is affirmative, the use is within the fair use “safe harbor.” He is careful to also argue that a use may still be a fair use even when the answer to one or more of the questions is “no,” but then the fair-use analysis becomes more context-specific. Additionally, he addresses a number of issues that frequently arise in fair-use decision-making—such as whether the user or copyright owner is acting in good faith or whether the parties discussed a possible license for the use—and argues that these usually serve as distractions. Finally, Donaldson provides an extensive appendix that identifies the cases on which he relies and summarizes how they fare under his three-question test. This is a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece, and scholars and practitioners would do well to engage with Donaldson’s arguments even if they disagree with his particular reformulation of the fair-use inquiry.

This article also is useful to scholars and teachers who seek to better understand the real decision-making process masked by the mechanical jurisprudence that multifactor tests like Section 107 of the Copyright Act or the likelihood-of-confusion test under the Lanham Act sometimes produces (particularly in the latter case). Donaldson presents a model for translating a test that purports to weigh and balance a range of considerations into a more directive inquiry that focuses attention on the facts that really matter in the analysis.

Finally, this article demonstrates how open-ended standards designed to allocate entitlements between private and public interests in intellectual property law can be, and have been, tailored through interpretation to provide a more fine-grained balance than could be readily achieved through legislation. As a result, this article should have appeal both for those interested in the specific application of fair use in the context of non-fiction adaptations and for those who may be inspired to adapt this mode of analysis for other multi-factor legal tests.

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  1. See Michael W. Carroll, Fixing Fair Use, 85 N.C. L. Rev. 1087, 1106 (2007) (“There are a range of cases in which the question of fair use recurs. In a few settings, litigation has provided ex ante certainty through the emergence of soft fair use rules.”
Cite as: Michael W. Carroll, Fair Use in Context, JOTWELL (December 17, 2013) (reviewing Michael C. Donaldson, Refuge From The Storm: A Fair Use Safe Harbor For Non-Fiction Works, 59 J. Copyright Soc’y U.S.A. 477 (2012), available at SSRN),