Jersey Boys' Use of Ed Sullivan Show Clip is 'Fair Use'
Whether on the phone, by email, or at cocktail parties, people routinely ask me questions relating to the fair use doctrine. Indeed, fair use is one of the most misunderstood legal doctrines on the books. The reason it causes so many misunderstandings is that applying the doctrine's four-factor analysis will rarely, if ever, produce a clear answer as to whether the use in question is in fact fair use. Among the most common fair use misconceptions are that "it's okay to 'borrow' the protected material if it's for educational purposes," or "it's okay if the use is de minimis." (A fancy Latin word for 'small,' 'nominal,' or 'insignificant.')
One of the reasons for the latter misconception is only reinforced by last week's ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in the case alleging that the critically acclaimed Broadway show Jersey Boys misappropriated a 7-second clip of the Ed Sullivan Show. Many folks will hear about the court's decision, or read about in the news, and will conclude (wrongfully so) that the reason the court found that the use of the TV show clip was okay was because it was only seven seconds long. Although the fact that the clip was indeed short, relative to the overall length of the show, the length of the borrowed material was just one of many factors that the court considered; moreover, although the court mentions that the clip was 7-seconds long six times in its 13-page opinion (PDF), the holding portion of the opinion says nothing about the length of the clip. That is telling (but probably only to those who are legally trained). A court's holding is the part of its decision that means something, or requires or prohibits some specific action. This was the Ninth Circuit's holding in the Jersey Boys' fair use case:
In the end, we are left with the following conclusion: [Jersey Boys'] use of the clip did not harm SOFA’s copyright in The Ed Sullivan Show, and society’s enjoyment of [the Broadway show] is enhanced with its inclusion. This case is a good example of why the “fair use” doctrine exists.
The bottom line is this: The penalties for copyright & trademark infringement can be substantial, even crippling. Don't ever assume that you can borrow someone else's material based on the fair use doctrine. Before you "borrow" something for your movie, song, advertisement, website, blog, photograph, etc., speak to an attorney who is familiar with the fair use doctrine.
Photo credit: Flickr.com