Week 3: Fair Use

Oh Dear. (n.d.) Source: http://www.clevelandfrowns.com

Oh Dear. (n.d.) Source: http://www.clevelandfrowns.com

This from the U.S. Copyright Office: “The distinction between fair use and infringement may be unclear and not easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission.” There you have it. No 30-second rule, no 6 notes/words rule (as my former creative producer/Nashville writer once told me), nada.

Speaking of copyright, one of my favorite copyright cases is the battle over Winnie the pooh, in which the guy who owned the merchandising rights to the bear quietly waited for Disney to turn Winnie into a billion-dollar-a-year cashbox, then sued Disney for a couple billion dollars. I love it. Incidentally, I am wondering if a tatoo of Winnie the pooh is copyright infringement . . .

Seriously. I want to know.

winnie napkin (n.d.) Source: www.izzys-party-shop.com

winnie napkin (n.d.) Source: http://www.izzys-party-shop.com

Winnie will be released into public domain in 2026. I’m wondering why he should become public domain at all. I need someone to explain to me the necessity of public domain again. Disney invested all of the money that it took to make Winnie a cultural icon. Why should they, and his creators, not benefit from that for eternity? I have a different take on copyrighted works that our culture has made the investment in to promote to such high status.

The best example of a work in this category is “Happy Birthday to You.” Nobody spent a ton of money to promote this song and make it into an international hit. We did it for free. Yet the song generates 2 million dollars a year for Time-Warner. It is actually copyright infringement to perform this song publicly. This I have trouble understanding, as the “exclusive right to public performances” makes sense when the composer is actually ALIVE and able to perform. Seeing as how the writer of the words (the melody is now in public domain) is dead, how can a public performance be infringement? Logically, it can’t be, yet legally it is. This is a work that I have no problem with becoming public domain, and yet another illustration of our in-need-of-repair copyright system.