All’s Fair In Love And Viral Videos

Posted: July 5, 2012

Comedy Central’s South Park has opened the door for “fair use” copyright defenses to shut down infringement lawsuits before they saddle defendants with discovery expenses or force a settlement for cost reasons.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in Chicago ruled just weeks ago that the cartoon’s parody of a popular Internet video — if you watch South Park, you know which one — was a protected parody. The episode “Canada on Strike” lampoons the juxtaposition of viral videos’ popularity with their typically paltry financial returns through advertising and licensing. Brownmark Films, which owns the copyright on the original video, sued Comedy Central and network owner Viacom for infringement. (Incidentally, both music videos were posted on You Tube, the same company that Viacom had sued for a billion dollars in March 2007 for alleged copyright infringement.) The appeals panel unanimously agreed that the South Park video was “obvious” fair use, “providing commentary on the ridiculousness of the original video and the viral nature of certain YouTube videos,” and upheld the suit’s dismissal.

Fair use under copyright law occurs when an earlier work is used by a latter work for commentary, parody, education or some other purpose whose main goal is not to secure financial gain. Recognizing the essential nature of South Park as a mature, adult-oriented animated series, the 7th Circuit emphasized that “[t]he show centers on the adventures of foul-mouthed fourth graders in the small town of South Park, Colorado. It is notorious for its distinct animation style and scatological humor [and] frequently provides commentary on current events and pop-culture through parody and satire.” Yet without getting into all the procedural wrinkles, the court also broke new legal ground in its discussion of the role of early dismissal of “weak claims” and disposition based on a fair use claim alone, in fighting against the “chilling effects” of First Amendment-related litigation.

Despite Brownmark’s assertions to the contrary, the only two pieces of evidence needed to decide the question of fair use in this case are the original version of [the viral video at issue] and the [South Park] episode at issue… We think it makes eminently good sense to extend the [incorporate by reference] doctrine to cover such works, especially in light of technological changes that have occasioned widespread production of audio-visual works. The expense of discovery … looms over this suit. Ruinous discovery heightens the incentive to settle rather than defend these frivolous suits. [Thus,] district courts need not, and indeed ought not, allow discovery when it is clear that the case turns on facts already in evidence.

An unusually frank and colorful opinion by long-time Circuit Judge Richard Cudahy (first appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1979) provides some comedy itself. Brownmark could have offered its own evidence to defeat the fair use defense but chose not to, Cudahy wrote. Its “broad” discovery request made Brownmark look like a “copyright troll” and would allow “expensive e-discovery of emails or other internal communications.” Brownmark’s only plausible copyright claim could be be that the parody harmed the market for its original video, but “as the South Park episode aptly points out, there is no ‘Internet money’ for the video itself on YouTube, only advertising dollars that correlate with the number of views the video has had.” Cudahy concluded “[i]t seems to this court that” the parody video’s “likely effect, ironically, would only increase ad revenue.”

Sometimes the courts actually do get it when technology is involved, although we have no idea whether Judge Cudahy himself watches South Park. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which submitted an amicus brief on behalf of Comedy Central, explained:

The opinion joins a growing body of precedent affirming that it’s proper to dismiss some copyright cases early, and that it’s possible in appropriate cases to determine whether a use is noninfringing without engaging in lengthy discovery. These rulings are important not only to protect speech, but also in fighting back against copyright trolls. Trolls depend on the threat of legal costs to encourage people to settle cases even though they might have legitimate defenses.

Of course, “trolls” are in the eye of the beholder. Like terrorists, one person’s troll may be another’s “freedom fighter.” So whether or not particular litigants merit that somewhat pejorative description, it’s clear that the costs and burdens associated with defending copyright claims — including but not only for Internet-distributed video — just went down a whole lot. While Brownmark involved a seemingly easy fair use case in the defendants’ favor, it will be inter­esting to see whether future courts will grant motions to dismiss where the fair use analysis is less obvious. In any event, copyright infringement plaintiffs should be aware that the road to discovery where a defendant raises a fair use defense is not be quite as smooth as it used to be.

As to judicial comedy, we express no opinion, but do like the district judge’s tact. “For as remarkable and fascinating the parties and issues surrounding this litigation are, this order, which will resolve a pending motion to dismiss will be, by comparison, frankly quite dry.”

The legal issues [in this case] are hardly the sort of subject that would create millions of fans, as the work of all of the parties before the court did. Nonetheless, while the court has a ‘tough job,’ ‘someone has to do it,’ and, ‘with shoulder to the wheel,’ this court ‘forge[s] on’ to resolve the pending motion. Janky v. Lake County Convention & Visitors Bureau, 576 F.3d 356, 358 (7th Cir. 2009).

For more information, please contact Glenn Manishin.