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In its current form, fair use doctrine provides a personal defense that applies narrowly to the specific use by the specific user. The landmark case of Google v. Oracle, currently pending before the Supreme Court, illustrates why this is problematic. Even if the Court were to rule that Google’s use of Oracle’s Java API’s was fair, the ruling would not protect the numerous parties that developed Java applications for the Android operating system; it would only shelter Google and Google’s particular use. This is not an isolated problem; the per use/per user rule cuts across fair uses of copyrighted works, and it always leaves follow-on users in the cold. Authors, musicians, documentary filmmakers and media outlets who win fair use cases cannot freely market their works that incorporate fair use content since their victories do not carry over to other users. Fair use under extant law is a very limited privilege.

This Article proposes a far-reaching reform not only of copyright law as applied to software, but of the fair use doctrine itself. Our proposal consists of three interlocking elements. First, we call for the introduction of a new in rem conception of fair use, under which a fair use ruling would serve as a property remedy that shelters all subsequent users of works that fairly incorporate preexisting materials.

Under this new conception, a finding of fair use would run with that new work like an easement to all other distributors, broadcasters, publishers, performers and others who use it. The introduction of this new type of in rem fair use would result in the division of fair use into two conceptions—one in rem and one in personam—that would co-exist alongside one another. Second, we would grant judges discretion to decide which fair use conception, if any, should be granted in any particular case. Judges would be able to employ the traditional in personam rule that the fair use avails only the specific defendant before it, or they could adopt an in rem fair use ruling, creating a property entitlement that runs with the work embodying the fairly incorporated content. Third, we propose two default rules to assist judges in making their decisions. Specifically, we propose that the default setting of fair use would depend on the type of use being examined. Where the claimed fair use consists of incorporating the protected copyrighted material in a new copyrighted work—such as the Android operating system—the default fair use would be of the in rem variety. However, in all other cases of claimed fair use, the traditional, familiar in personam conception would be the default setting. This approach would create clarity about the status of follow-on fair uses, but permit judges to tailor their rulings case by case.

Implementation of our proposal would yield several significant improvements to the current fair use doctrine. It would permit judges to take account of the potential for future uses of the fair use work, without handcuffing them to a single approach. Moreover, it would increase certainty with respect to the use of copyrighted work by lowering transaction and litigation costs for creators of new works. Finally, the version of fair use we advocate would enhance the use of copyrighted content.


Intellectual property law & policy, copyright infringement, fair use defense, Supreme Court of the United States, SCOTUS, Google LLC v. Oracle America Inc., remedies, marketability, follow-on works

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Virginia Law Review

Publication Citation

107 Va. L. Rev. 1255 (2021)