Fair use doctrine protects anonymous internet post of church documents. IN RE REDDIT

Fair use doctrine protects anonymous internet post of church documents. IN RE REDDIT

A copyright is a set of exclusive right granted to the creator of a new expressive work or art. When an artist paints a picture, takes a photograph or creates art in some other tangible medium, the artist is granted a copyright to their creation.  A copyright grants its owner the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, display, perform, transmit or make derivative works based on the original work. If someone other than the the owner of copyright attempts to exercise one of these exclusive rights, that can be considered copyright infringement.  A copyright owner can file a lawsuit to stop copyright infringement with an injunction and can request monetary damages for copyright infringement which has occurred.

Copyright law in the United States grants the owner of a copyright the ability to control how a copyrighted work is used, however there are some limits to a copyright owner’s rights.   The purpose of copyright law is to promote creativity and advance society, therefore copyright law will excuse what would normally considered copyright infringement in some circumstances.  A defendant will not be liable for copyright infringement if the defendant’s use of a copyrighted work is considered a fair use. Fair use generally falls into two categories, (1) commentary and criticism, or (2) parody. Fair use is a defense to an allegation of copyright infringement that must be plead by the defendant.

When a court is presented with a fair use defense to copyright infringement, the court will review several factors to determine if the use qualifies as a fair use.  Those factors are: (1) the purpose and character of the use, (2) the nature of the copyrighted work, (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion taken, and (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for the copyrighted work. How a court will weigh each of these factors is fact specific and open to interpretation, therefore it is useful to review court cases to learn how courts have interpreted fair use in the past.

IN RE DMCA SUBPEONA TO REDDIT, INC., 19-MS-80005 (N.D.CA 2020) is a case that involves the criticism aspect of the copyright fair use doctrine.

In August 2018, a user on the website Reddit, posted two items on the social media platform: (1) an image of a solicitation for donations from the back of The Watchtower magazine, a publication by church group known as Jehovah’s Witnesses, and (2) a chart summarizing the type of personal information the church collected about their members.  The user claimed that he posted the materials to spark discussion about the church’s fundraising and data collection practices.

Watchtower magazine sent a DMCA take down notice to Reddit and the issued a subpoena to learn the identity of the user that posted the material.  Reddit moved to quash the subpoena.  A magistrate judge quashed the subpoena with respect to the solicitation for donations but not the chart.  The user requested the district court review the decision.

The district court reviewed the fair use factors and ruled that the subpoena should be quashed completely.  With respect to the first factor, the court found that the use was transformative because the copyrighted material was used for noncommercial commentary on and criticism of the fundraising and data collection practices. For the second factor, the court found that the ad and chart are functional and instructive documents, which weighed in favor of fair use. The amount and substantiality of the portion used, weighed in favor of fair use because only what was “reasonably necessary” from the original work to make the criticisms and comments.  With respect to the fourth factor, the court found the use did not affect the market for The Watchtower magazine because the magazine does not license the works for the purpose of criticism. Further, the chart was not registered with the Copyright Office until after the alleged infringement, undercutting any loss of value in this work.  Given that all four factors favored fair use, the court ruled in favor of Reddit and the user.

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