Effective copyright protection is the linchpin of professional authorship; it enables authors to make a living writing. The Authors Guild is dedicated to ensuring this remains possible in the twenty-first century. But we recognize that copyright is not absolute. We believe, for example, that historians and biographers should be able to quote unpublished letters and diaries after the lifetimes of their authors, which is to say we believe in fair use and other exceptions to the author’s exclusive rights in a creative work.
One of the most important issues in copyright law today, “fair use” is the legal catchphrase for a defense to an accusation of copyright infringement. Some unauthorized uses of copyrighted works actually further the purpose of copyright law—to catalyze and reward cultural production—without harming the incentives to create. Even though these kinds of uses would otherwise be infringing, if they are found to be “fair,” they are not punished. Traditional fair uses include socially beneficial activities like commentary, parody, scholarship, and news reporting.
But the concept is sometimes misused, and deciding what’s fair and what’s not gets murky. Courts use a four-part test that essentially weighs the social and cultural benefits of the unauthorized use against the financial harm to the copyright holder and the potential effect on the copyright incentives to create generally. The amount taken, the creativity of the work, and whether the use is commercial are also considered. Some people mistakenly believe any use is fair if it benefits scholarship or education, but that’s not the case. In the university market, for example, the reproduction of chapters or other long excerpts for classroom use has always required the payment of fees to the copyright holder, and it is an important source of income for many authors.
Fair use is the core issue in our case Authors Guild v. Google but our copyright advocacy efforts don’t start and end with this topic. The Guild has a 100-year history of contributing to debates before Congress on the proper scope and function of all aspects of copyright law. We are a proponent of a copyright law that incentivizes new creative works while justly compensating the creators of those works. To this end, we regularly advise the Copyright Office on the legal reforms necessary for authorship to thrive in the digital age; and we actively lobby in Washington, D.C. for copyright reforms that further authors’ interests and for diplomatic efforts to protect and enforce authors’ copyrights in the global marketplace. Our legal team counsels members on various copyright-related questions, from how to register a work to how to exercise your statutory right to terminate a contract.