Despite the cries of some commentators that copyright law is dead (or at least that they wish it was), [1] copyright law is fully capable of responding to the challenges posed by the new technologies of the digital revolution. Copyright law initially developed in response to the invention of the printing press, [2] and has a long history of addressing changes in technology. [3] Where Congress has not explicitly made provisions for the new technology, the courts have stretched statutory interpretation and common law doctrines to do so. The courts’ express goal in fitting existing copyright law to new technologies has been to strike a balance between stimulating artistic creativity through the limited monopoly provided by copyright and providing “broad public availability of literature, music and the other arts.” [4]


To this end, the common law, [5] and eventually Congress, provided a safe harbor to those who use another’s work for the purposes of “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching … scholarship, or research”. [6] When someone reproduces a copyrighted work for one of the enumerated purposes, the courts may find that there was no infringement under the fair use doctrine. Congress specified that the courts were to apply a four-factor test in determining whether any specific use is a fair use. [7] The four parts of the test are:


(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature of is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. [8]

The U.S. Supreme Court has said that the fair use doctrine should be applied when a rigid application of the copyright statute would “stifle the very creativity which that law is designed to foster.” [9]


The new technologies of the digital revolution, in particular multimedia development, seem to cry out for the application of the fair use doctrine. As of this time, however, none of the federal appellate courts have considered the application of fair use doctrine to the new technologies of the digital revolution. The Supreme Court considered the application of the fair use doctrine to a predecessor of digital technology, the Betamax Video Cassette Recorder (“VCR”). However, the focus of the Supreme Court’s opinion in Sony Corporation of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc., 464 U.S. 417, 430 (1984) was the issue of contributory copyright infringement of television programs’ copyrights. [10] Although the Court clarified the fair use doctrine, emphasizing that it is an “equitable rule of reason” and that all four statutory factors must be balanced against one another, [11] fair use was a small part of the Court’s analysis. It was the central issue of a subsequent case, Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 114 S. Ct. 1164 (1994), but this case involved musical parody rather than technology. [12] Notably, however, Acuff-Rose reversed the trend among the lower courts to over-emphasize the commercial nature of the use such that commercial uses were presumptively barred from employing the fair use doctrine as a defense. [13] This reversal clearly has important ramifications for multimedia technology, much of which is purely commercial in nature. [14]


Although neither Sony nor Acuff-Rose directly addressed the application of the fair use doctrine to digital technology, these cases laid important groundwork. The Circuit Courts have built upon this groundwork, and although they have not yet applied fair use to digital technology, either, at least one court has applied the doctrine to the analogous technology of photocopying. [15] In American Geophysical Union v. Texaco, Inc., 37 F.3d 881 (1994), the Second Circuit held that copying of eight articles from the Journal of Catalysis by one of Texaco’s researchers was not fair use. [16] The Texaco opinion is particularly instructive as it builds on the Acuff-Rose opinion and carefully balances the four factors of the fair use doctrine. [17]


In his article on multimedia and fair use, Goldberg argues persuasively that Texaco leads the way for multimedia developers to find a safe harbor in the fair use doctrine. [18] However, Goldberg defines multimedia too tightly to give comfort to many developers or lay users of the new digital technology. Following Michael D. Scott, [19] Goldberg defines multimedia as having five essential characteristics: it 1) involves more than one media, 2) is adaptable for a variety of uses, 3) is delivered through CD-ROM, computer networks, or HDTV, 4) is stored in digital form, and 5) is interactive. [20] This definition excludes multimedia presentations which abound in the corporate world and in daily personal use. For example, presentations made by competing law firms in “beauty-pageant” competitions for a corporation’s business might use graphic images and text (multiple media), might be delivered through digitally projecting a computer screen on which the presentation “played,” and might be stored in digital form (saved on the firm’s computer network). However, under Mr. Goldberg’s definition, this would not be a multimedia production because the presentation had a single use (education of the audience) [21] and was not interactive (the presentation advanced from screen to screen automatically). Similarly, a “Seinfeld” screen saver made by a lay consumer out of sound clips from the popular television program and images of the shows downloaded from the Seinfeld web-page would not be a multimedia presentation because it has a single use (entertainment) and is not interactive. Although a broader definition does risk the “slippery slope of over-inclusion” against which Mr. Goldberg warns, [22] defining multimedia too narrowly risks excluding broad applications of the new digital technologies from this general discussion.


However, such broad considerations might be best left to the legislature. The courts will address the problem of the new technologies, if at all, through discrete facts. Furthermore, the courts are careful to consider applications of the fair use doctrine on a “case-by-case” basis. [23] Therefore, it may be instructive to describe a hypothetical use (which would not qualify as multimedia under Mr. Goldberg’s definition) and then apply the fair use doctrine to this use.


Pamela R. O’Brien*