Second Circuit Brings Some Sanity Back to Transformative Fair Use

The Second Circuit handed down an opinion in TCA Television v. McCollum earlier this week holding that a play’s inclusion of Abbott and Costello’s famous “Who’s on First?” routine was not transformative fair use. Given how expansive transformativeness has become lately, especially in the Second Circuit, the opinion is somewhat surprising. What’s more, it’s not clear that the appellate court even needed to reach the fair use issue since it held for the defendants on the alternate ground of lack of ownership. If anything, it appears that this particular panel of judges went out of its way to push back on—and bring some much-needed sanity to—transformative fair use doctrine in the Second Circuit.

The play at issue, “Hand to God,” features an introverted boy named Jason who communicates through his alter ego sock puppet named Tyrone. In order to impress a girl, Jason and Tyrone perform over one minute of the “Who’s on First?” routine, with Jason as Abbott and Tyrone as Costello. The plaintiffs, including Abbott and Costello’s heirs, sent the defendants, producers and author of the play, a cease and desist letter. When the defendants refused to remove the scene from the play, the plaintiffs sued for copyright infringement. On the first fair use factor, which looks at the “purpose and character of the use,” the district court held that Jason/Tyrone’s almost-verbatim recitation of the heart of the “Who’s on First?” routine was “highly transformative”—so transformative that it was “determinative” of fair use.

The standard for transformativeness, which comes from the Supreme Court’s opinion in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose, looks at “whether the new work merely ‘supersede[s] the objects’ of the original creation” or whether it “instead adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning, or message[.]” The district court held that “Hand to God” used “Who’s on First?” for a different—and thus transformative—purpose, namely, to proffer a “darkly comedic critique of the social norms governing a small town in the Bible Belt.” While Abbott and Costello’s routine was standard vaudevillian fare, the district court reasoned that the play used it for a more dramatic purpose.

The Second Circuit rejected the district court’s conclusion, pointing out that “the critical inquiry is whether the new work uses the copyrighted material itself for a purpose, or imbues it with a character, different from that for which it was created.” In other words, it’s not enough for “Hand to God” to have a different purpose than “Who’s on First?” The issue is whether “Hand to God” used “Who’s on First?” for a different purpose than Abbott and Costello used the routine. The Second Circuit held that it did not: “The Play may convey a dark critique of society, but it does not transform Abbott and Costello’s Routine so that it conveys that message.”

The disagreement between the district court and the Second Circuit is subtle, yet important. The lower court determined that having Jason/Tyrone recite the “Who’s on First?” routine was transformative because it gave the audience a glimpse into Jason’s psyche. Whereas Jason is seemingly kind and soft-spoken on the surface, it becomes clear through his sock puppet persona Tyrone that there’s much murkiness beneath. And to the extent that Jason/Tyrone’s recitation of “Who’s on First?” is comedic, the district court thought that the “audience laughs at Jason’s lies, not, as the Plaintiffs claim, simply the words of the Routine itself.”

By contrast, the Second Circuit held that this “reasoning is flawed in that what it identifies are the general artistic and critical purpose and character of the Play.” Moreover, the district court failed to identify how the “defendants’ extensive copying of a famous comedy routine was necessary to this purpose, much less how the character of the Routine was transformed by defendants’ use.” The Second Circuit’s approach here recognizes that fair use is premised upon necessity, that is, there needs to be a justification for copying the specific original work. In this case, the point of having Jason/Tyrone recite “Who’s on First?” was to demonstrate that Jason was lying when he later claimed to have written it. But that could have been accomplished by using any recognizable work.

As the Second Circuit noted, “the particular subject of the lie—the Routine—appears irrelevant to that purpose.” And as such, the defendants’ use of “Who’s on First?” had “no bearing on the original work” and lacked the required “justification to qualify for a fair use defense.” This reasoning sounds very close to requiring the copyist to comment upon the original, a principle that, for better or worse, was rejected by the Second Circuit in Cariou v. Prince. Indeed, the appellate panel here mentioned Cariou, noting that, “although commentary frequently constitutes fair use, it is not essential that a new creative work comment on an incorporated copyrighted work to be transformative.” Nevertheless, the Second Circuit easily distinguished Cariou since there the artist at least changed the original work.

The Second Circuit’s opinion is a refreshing reminder that, despite what some would prefer, not everything arguably-transformative is transformative fair use. If the defendants wanted to use a copyrighted work within the play, the proper course would have been to negotiate a license or to not use the work at all. And given the way “Who’s on First?” was used within the play, there was certainly no shortage of alternatives that could have sufficed. It’s also nice to see that some judges in the Second Circuit are skeptical of cases like Cariou, which the panel here referred to as “the high-water mark of our court’s recognition of transformative works.” The panel also rightfully noted that an overly-expansive view of transformativeness threatens a copyright owner’s exclusive right to prepare derivative works. And the fact that this push-back is coming from within the Second Circuit makes it all the more interesting.

FTC’s PAE Study Makes Unsupported Recommendations

Cross-posted from the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property (CPIP) blog.

The FTC released its long-awaited study of so-called patent assertion entities, or PAEs, today. As many predicted, the FTC makes several broad recommendations for substantive and procedural reforms. The problem with this, however, is that the study was not designed to reveal the sort of data that could support such policy recommendations.

The FTC itself even admitted this. When seeking approval from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to go ahead with the study, the FTC explained that its findings “will not be generalizable to the universe of all PAE activity.” In another submission to the OMB, the FTC acknowledged that “the case study should be viewed as descriptive and probative for future studies seeking to explore the relationships between organizational form and assertion behavior.” Now that the study is out, we see that the FTC has neglected to recognize the very limitations it once acknowledged to exist.

The simple fact is that the PAE study is just the first step down the long road to understanding the complicated world of PAEs. While the study’s results reveal some information about a handful of firms, they don’t—because they can’t—tell us how PAE activity affects competition and innovation in general. The sample size is too small, and the questions are too open-ended, to have any predictive power.

It’s clear that many had already jumped the gun, claiming both that we need this study to understand PAEs but that we know enough about PAEs to condemn them. They were going to use this study to argue for broad reforms no matter what it said. And now that the study is out, itself suggesting many fundamental changes, the anti-patent crowd has more fuel for the anti-inventor bonfire. That the study does not support its conclusions matters a great deal, and it’s disappointing that the FTC would use an exploratory study designed to simply suggest hypotheses to claim that those hypotheses have now been fully tested.

To better understand the limitations of the FTC’s study, here are some recommended readings:


  1. Anne Layne-Farrar, What Can the FTC’s §6(B) PAE Study Teach Us? A Practical Review of the Study’s Methodology
  2. Kristen Osenga, Sticks and Stones: How the FTC’s Name-Calling Misses the Complexity of Licensing-Based Business Models
  3. Fritz Scheuren, Statistics and the Paperwork Reduction Act: An FTC Case Study


  1. Devlin Hartline, Acknowledging the Limitations of the FTC’s PAE Study
  2. Devlin Hartline, How Rhetorical Epithets Have Led the FTC Astray in its Study of Patent Licensing Firms
  3. Anne Layne-Farrar, What Can the FTC’s PAE Study Teach Us?
  4. Kristen Osenga, Why the FTC Study on PAEs is Destined to Produce Incomplete and Inaccurate Results
  5. Fritz Scheuren, What Can We Learn From the FTC’s Patent Assertion Entity Study?

Professors Mislead FCC on Basic Copyright Law

Cross-posted from the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property (CPIP) blog.

In a letter submitted to the FCC late last week defending the Commission’s deeply flawed set-top box proposal,[1] a group of professors make an incredible claim: Everyone is perfectly free to distribute copyrighted works online however they please. No license? No problem! According to these professors, many of whom teach copyright law, copyright owners have no distribution right in cyberspace. If you think this sounds wrong, you’re right! This claim sounds ridiculous because it is ridiculous, and it’s simply amazing—and troubling—that professors would mislead the FCC in this way.

The professors argue that a copyright owner’s “right to distribute encompasses the distribution of physical copies of a work, not electronic transmissions.” In support, they cite no case law whatsoever. There’s a good reason for this: None exists. The reality is that every single court that has ever considered this argument on the merits has rejected it. Time and again, this argument has been summarily dismissed by the courts. As the Nimmer on Copyright treatise puts it: “No court has held to the contrary on this issue[.]” Yet, the professors present this to the FCC as an accurate description of the law, with no equivocation whatsoever.

In their defense, one can make a plausible argument that this follows from certain parts of the Copyright Act. And the professors do in fact cite these parts. They quote Section 106(3), which gives copyright owners the exclusive right “to distribute copies . . . of the copyrighted work to the public,” and Section 101, which says that “copies are material objects.” At first blush, one could question how it’s possible to distribute a “material object” online. Indeed, many academics have questioned this very thing. For example, one professor wrote in 2001 that “transmitting copyrightable works over a computer network such as the Internet do[es] not involve any transfer of such material objects.” On this view, transfers over digital networks are not distributions of material objects.

While some academics may insist that this is the only way to interpret the Copyright Act, the reality is that the courts have uniformly interpreted it differently. Many courts have explicitly rejected the textual argument that there are no digital distributions, and many others have just assumed that such digital distribution rights exist. As the district court in Arista Records v. Greubel noted in 2006, despite “scholarly articles reflecting debate over the scope” of the distribution right, “the courts have not hesitated to find copyright infringement by distribution in cases of file-sharing or electronic transmission of copyrighted works.” The district court then cited opinions by the Supreme Court in New York Times v. Tasini, the Seventh Circuit in In re Aimster, and the Ninth Circuit in A&M Records v. Napster that applied the distribution right in cyberspace without even flinching.

Perhaps the most in-depth analysis of the issue comes from London-Sire v. Doe, where District Judge Nancy Gertner held in 2008 that it “makes no difference that the distribution occurs electronically[.]” Judge Gertner reasoned that “[w]hat matters in the marketplace is not whether a material object ‘changes hands,’ but whether, when the transaction is completed, the distributee has a material object.” Even though the “distributee” has a different “material object”—the hard drive or other storage media where the file resides—Judge Gertner held that a digital distribution has taken place nonetheless. She warned that “an overly literal definition of ‘material object’ . . . ignores the phrase’s purpose in the copyright statutes.”

Other courts have adopted this reasoning. For example, the district court in Capitol Records v. ReDigi cited London-Sire approvingly: “[T]he Court agrees that ‘[a]n electronic file transfer is plainly within the sort of transaction that § 106(3) was intended to reach [and] … fit[s] within the definition of ‘distribution’ of a phonorecord.’” The court then held that the distribution right exists in cyberspace: “Accordingly, the court concludes that . . . the sale of digital music files on ReDigi’s website infringes Capitol’s exclusive right of distribution.” Likewise, just last year, the district court in BMG v. Cox relied on London-Sire in holding that, “[n]ot only can electronic files be ‘material objects,’ but transferring files using a BitTorrent protocol satisfies the transactional element of distribution.”

The fact is that courts have not wavered in finding that the distribution right applies online. As one district court said in 2012, “[i]n the electronic context, copies may be distributed electronically.” The point is so well-settled that it defies logic to claim otherwise, and it’s certainly consistent with other parts of the Copyright Act. For instance, Section 506(a)(1)(B) makes it a crime to “willfully” infringe by “distribution, including by electronic means[.]” And Section 115(c)(3)(A) creates a compulsory license “to distribute . . . by means of a digital transmission[.]” If digital distributions didn’t implicate the public distribution right, it wouldn’t be a crime to distribute “by electronic means,” and one wouldn’t need a license to distribute “by means of a digital transmission.”

To claim that the “right to distribute encompasses the distribution of physical copies of a work, not electronic transmissions,” as the professors do, is simply wrong. There’s certainly an argument that can be made, but it’s not an accurate description of the law—which is how the professors present it. Everyone knows the distribution right exists online, and it’s industry practice to license digital distributions. Do you think iTunes and Amazon pay for distribution licenses because they just feel like it? It’s disturbing that professors would state without any qualification that electronic transmissions don’t implicate the distribution rights of copyright owners. And if they’re willing to say that, it makes you wonder what else they’re willing to say.

[1] My colleagues and I have written extensively about the copyright concerns with the FCC’s set-top box proposal. See, for example, here, here, here, and here. The FCC now claims that a revised version of its proposal addresses these concerns, but the new language has not yet been released. Despite this fact, these professors claim that the yet-to-be-released proposal “does not interfere with any legitimate copyright interests of programmers, and that it is within the Commission’s authority to implement.” We’ll save our analysis of the new proposal for when the text itself is made available.

Criminal Copyright Infringement is Crime of “Moral Turpitude”

This past Friday, the Board of Immigration Appeals held that criminal copyright infringement constitutes a “crime involving moral turpitude” under immigration law. The Board reasoned that criminal copyright infringement is inherently immoral because it involves the willful theft of property and causes harm to both the copyright owner and society.

The respondent, Raul Zaragoza-Vaquero, was indicted in 2012 for selling illicit CDs of popular artists including Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, and Jennifer Lopez over a five-year period. After a three-day trial, the jury found Zaragoza-Vaquero guilty of criminal copyright infringement under Section 506(a)(1)(A), which makes it a crime to “willfully” infringe “for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain.” The crime was a felony under Section 2319(b)(1) because it involved the “reproduction or distribution, . . . during any 180-day period, of at least 10 copies or phonorecords, of 1 or more copyrighted works, which have a total retail value of more than $2,500.” Zaragoza-Vaquero was sentenced to 33 months in prison and ordered to pay $36,000 in restitution.

Under immigration law, an alien who has been ordered removed from the United States may ask the Attorney General to cancel the removal order. However, there is an exception for “any alien convicted of . . . a crime involving moral turpitude,” in which case the Attorney General is powerless to cancel the removal. Zaragoza-Vaquero was ordered removed in early 2015, and the Immigration Judge pretermitted his application to have the removal order cancelled by the Attorney General. The Immigration Judge held that criminal copyright infringement is a “crime involving moral turpitude,” thus making Zaragoza-Vaquero ineligible for such cancellation. On appeal, the Board agreed, rejecting Zaragoza-Vaquero’s bid to have the Attorney General consider his removal.

Even though crimes of “moral turpitude” have been removable offenses since 1891, Congress has never defined what the phrase means nor listed the crimes that qualify. That job instead has been left to immigration judges and the federal courts. In 1951, the U.S. Supreme Court noted that “crimes in which fraud was an ingredient have always been regarded as involving moral turpitude.” Indeed, many property crimes have been held to involve “moral turpitude” when committed willfully because there is the criminal intent to defraud the property owner of its rights. “Moral turpitude” has thus been found to exist in numerous crimes against property, including arson, burglary, embezzlement, extortion, blackmail, bribery, false pretenses, forgery, larceny, receiving or transporting stolen goods, and check or credit card fraud.

Crimes against intellectual property have likewise been found to involve “moral turpitude.” For example, the Ninth Circuit held in 2008 that the use of counterfeit marks, in violation of state law, is “a crime involving moral turpitude because it is an inherently fraudulent crime.” The Ninth Circuit reasoned: “Either an innocent purchaser is tricked into buying a fake item; or even if the purchaser knows the item is counterfeit, the owner of the mark has been robbed of its value. The crime is really a species of theft. . . . The commission of the crime necessarily defrauds the owner of the mark, or an innocent purchaser of the counterfeit items, or both.”

Similarly, the Board of Immigration Appeals held in 2007 that trafficking in counterfeit goods, in violation of federal law, is a crime of “moral turpitude.” The Board reasoned that the conviction required the federal prosecutor to prove that the defendant “intentionally trafficked” and “knowingly used a spurious trademark that was likely to confuse or deceive others.” Even though the statute did not require proof that the defendant had the specific intent to defraud, the Board held that such trafficking involved “moral turpitude” because it is “inherently immoral” to willfully exploit the property owner and the public.

Turning back to Zaragoza-Vaquero, the Board defined “moral turpitude” as “conduct that shocks the public conscience as being inherently base, vile, or depraved, and contrary to accepted rules of morality and the duties owed between persons or to society in general.” The Board then noted that trafficking in counterfeit goods has been held to be a crime of “moral turpitude” because it involves (1) “theft of someone else’s property,” (2) “proof of intent to traffic,” (3) “societal harm,” and (4) “dishonest dealing and deliberate exploitation of the public and the mark owner.”

Reasoning by analogy to these trafficking cases, the Board ultimately held that criminal copyright infringement “must also be a crime involving moral turpitude.” Criminal copyright infringement statutes “were enacted to protect a form of intellectual property,” and offenses “must be committed willfully, meaning that a defendant must voluntarily and intentionally violate a known legal duty not to infringe a copyright.” The Board noted that criminal copyright infringement “also involves significant societal harm,” since “piracy” has “harmed the film and recording industries, including actors, artists, and musicians.” It pointed to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office, which found that “intellectual property crimes cause negative effects on health, safety, and lost revenue.”

The Board’s holding that criminal copyright infringement is a crime of “moral turpitude” thus extends the long line of cases finding that crimes against property are inherently immoral when the criminal intentionally defrauds the owner of its rights. While many will surely balk at the suggestion that there’s anything immoral about criminal copyright infringement, I think the Board reached the right conclusion—both in the moral and legal sense. A defendant such as Zaragoza-Vaquero, who for years willfully infringed for profit, has acted in a way that shocks the conscience and has shown a conscious disregard for the rights of others. And while prosecutors need not show the specific intent to defraud in securing such a conviction, the element of willfulness suffices to establish the intent to defraud the copyright owner of its property.

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© 2016 Devlin Hartline. Licensed under the Law Theories Public License 1.0.

Federal Circuit Again Finds Computer-Implemented Invention Patent Eligible

Cross-posted from the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property blog.

In Tuesday’s McRO v. Bandai decision, the Federal Circuit has once again reversed a district court’s determination that a computer-implemented invention (aka “software patent”) was not patent eligible under Section 101 of the Patent Act. This continues the Federal Circuit’s recent trend of clarifying the Supreme Court’s two-step patent-eligibility test under Mayo and Alice. The first step asks whether the invention is “directed to” a patent-ineligible concept, such as an abstract idea. If so, the second step then asks whether there is an “inventive concept” that transforms the concept into a patent-eligible invention. While the Supreme Court gave little guidance on what “directed to” and “inventive concept” mean in practice, the Federal Circuit’s recent decisions have made the Mayo-Alice test far less abstract—rather ironic, given that the test itself assesses abstractness.

This past May, the Federal Circuit held in Enfish that, in the software context, the “directed to” inquiry looks at whether “the plain focus of the claims is on an improvement to computer functionality itself.” Since the database claims at issue focused on specific improvements to computer capabilities, they were not “directed to” a patent-ineligible concept under Section 101. Two months later in Bascom, the Federal Circuit stated that an “inventive concept can be found in the non-conventional and non-generic arrangement of known, conventional pieces.” And even though each software claim, related to filtering content on the internet, was “known in the art” when taken individually, the Federal Circuit held that the claims, in combination, were patent eligible because they transformed “the abstract idea of filtering content into a particular, practical application of that abstract idea.”

Adding to this recent line of cases upholding the patent-eligibility of computer-implemented inventions, the Federal Circuit’s new opinion in McRO v. Bandai sheds even more light on the Section 101 analysis under the Mayo-Alice test. The invention at issue involved automated lip-syncing for computer-generated animation, which the district court held was drafted too broadly to be patent eligible. The Federal Circuit reversed, noting that courts “must look to the claims as an ordered combination,” even under the first step of the Mayo-Alice test. The Court of Appeals thus found that the proper analytical centerpiece was “whether the claims in these patents focus on a specific means or method that improves the relevant technology.” Since the invention constituted a “combined order of specific rules that renders information into a specific format that is then used and applied to create desired results,” the Federal Circuit held it patent eligible under Section 101.

Several commentators have praised the Federal Circuit’s decision. Bob Sachs, who specializes in patentable subject matter as a partner at Fenwick & West, points out that the Federal Circuit, for the first time, has used preemption to find that the invention was not “directed to” patent-ineligible subject matter. The Federal Circuit here looked at preemption as part of the first step of the Mayo-Alice test, finding it relevant to whether the invention was “directed to” a patent-ineligible concept in the first place. As Sachs explains, the Federal Circuit “confirms Enfish’s holding that the improvement provided by the specific claim limitations can be considered” under the first step of the Mayo-Alice test. Moreover, Sachs notes that the “panel here makes clear that a demonstration of meaningful non-preemption is sufficient to establish that a claim is not ‘directed to’ an abstract idea, and thus eligible at step 1.”

Other observers, including Erich Andersen, VP and Deputy General Counsel at Microsoft, and Gene Quinn of IPWatchdog, have applauded the Federal Circuit for making the patent-eligibility analysis even more concrete in light of the Supreme Court’s rather abstract abstractness test in Mayo and Alice. If anything, the Federal Circuit here has not only built upon its prior precedents in Enfish and Bascom, it has tied them together by explaining that ordered combinations are relevant to both the first and second steps of the Mayo-Alice test. In the end, the patent eligibility of a computer-implemented invention appears far more settled than ever before–a great result for inventors of so-called “software patents.” The Federal Circuit’s decision is certainly a far cry from the supposed death-knell for “software patents” predicted by several commentators after the Supreme Court’s opinion in Alice.