To follow-up my last post, and in response to a couple of conversations I’ve had lately, I wanted to try to sharpen the picture regarding fair use. I recently told a friend and playwrite that using the fair use doctrine is like running a yellow light. It’s risky, you’re on the verge of having done something wrong, but if you did it “just so,” you did it right. When running a yellow light, it matters if a traffic authority sees you, and it matters what his or her perspective of you is. Outside influences can make a difference, a reckless driver who runs a yellow is more likely to get pulled over than someone who is doing everything above reproach except for running the yellow.
Running a yellow light is legal, running a red light is not. Fair use is legal, unauthorized derivatives are not. What makes for properly executed fair use? Read on.
Because I like examples, and because I like Batman, we’ll turn again to the Dark Knight as a test subject. Instead of fan art, however, we’ll look to the silver screen and consider Nicholas Cage’s Big Daddy from Kick-Ass. [SPOILER WARNING: I’m going to refer to details from Kick-Ass that give away some of the plot. If you haven’t seen it, read with caution. Also, see the movie, very funny, it may still be in some cheap shows and it hits DVD August 3].
First, the original work must qualify for copyright protection. As I previously wrote, copyright usually applies to specific works, but it is conceivable for highly distinctive characters to achieve a protected status. The Batman character as depicted in both comic and film qualifies as a protectable character.
Copyright grants to the owner the exclusive right to make derivative works based on the original. If a second work is derived from the first, it must either be done with permission or be a fair use. The character Big Daddy, as depicted in the movie, borrows from many of Batman’s key elements. Yes, there are plenty of original elements to Cage’s portrayal, but the character is also clearly derived from DC’s iconic hero. Cage’s original elements will be key to the fair use analysis, but it doesn’t change the work from being a derivative, it’s just an allowed derivative.
Fair use is complicated and muddy, allowing courts a great deal of latitude, but the basic elements that will be considered are:
1. the purpose and character of the use
2. the nature of the original work
3. the proportion that was “taken”
4. economic impact of the “taking”
No one element is controlling. The elements are not taken individually, but rather in tandem with one another. A use could fail on two or more elements, but the great weight of the use could still favor finding it a fair one. Looking specifically to the use of Big Daddy.
1. Purpose and Character of use includes public vs. private and commercial vs. non-commercial. Private, non-commercial uses are more favored for fair use. Educational uses, especially non-profit ones, are favored. Parody use is favored. The more the second use “transforms” the original work, the safer it is. Big Daddy is a commercial, public use. Kick-Ass was distributed on a wide scale with the goal of turning a profit. However, Big Daddy is also a clear parody of Batman. The basic elements are taken, but then expanded, comic value is added. Big Daddy is ruthless toward the mob, just as Batman is, but unlike Batman, he uses guns. Big Daddy employs a fake mustache, lampooning the idea of changing appearances to fight crime – a great comic touch as Big Daddy has a regular mustache by day and an even bigger mustache in costume.
Big Daddy 1, Batman 0.5.
2. Nature of Original Work. This factor is tied closely to the fourth (economic impact). It basically asks when the first work was published. Social statement? Educational text? Mass-marketed to maximize profits? Batman may well be a social statement, but the franchise is just that, a franchise marketed for the purpose of making money. Neither DC or Warner Bros. (which owns DC and distributes the current run of movies) means for Batman to do anything for them but bring in the green.
3. Amount Taken. This is a critical factor for a parody, for a parody must take some for the target of the lampooning to be clear, but may not take too much or it simply making money on another person’s idea, rather than making money from making fun of another person’s idea. Big Daddy takes some of Batman’s core elements, but the character doesn’t take too much, only what is necessary for the audience to know “we’re mocking Batman,” The rest is original. If the target is well identified and the lampooning is well targeted, the taker can actually keep taking. For example, Nic Cage’s speaking cadence when in costume is taken from Adam West’s Batman in the 60’s television series. He took an element not needed to make the identification, but then he had fun with it. Another additional taking was the not-so-subtle reference to the Bat signal:
Big Daddy 2, Batman 1.5
4. Economic impact on the original. Often misunderstood, I have heard people say that so long as they aren’t making money, it’s a fair use. Not true. The question is not “are you making money?” It is “are they not making money because you usurped them?” One last complication, if they lose money because you spoiled the public’s taste for their product, you’re okay, the issue is are they losing money because you met the consumer’s need for the original. Kick-Ass and Batman are rival films vying for consumer dollars. Although not released in direct opposition, DVD sales, Netflix, and On-demand make the analysis worthwhile, if not crucial. Kick-Ass will probably enjoy some sales at Batman’s expense, but if it does, it will do so because people prefer it as a superhero movie or because Nic Cage has forever ruined people’s ability to take Christian Bale’s performance seriously. Both of those are okay. A court would not find that Kick-Ass fulfills people’s need for a “Batman Movie,” that’s the analysis, and Kick-Ass wins.
Big Daddy 3, Batman 1.5. Game Over. Fair Use. Don’t mess with Daddy!
Two points in closing.
First, if it isn’t obvious, I liked Kick-Ass. I got the joke. This makes a difference, just as a sports car is more likely to get pulled over than Volvos, it matters if a judge or jury likes the second use. It’s not fair, but it’s reality. This is one reason why utilizing a lawyer can benefit an artist claiming fair use. Lawyers specialize in framing issues in a way that court’s will find more palatable.
Second, I wrote about trademark fair use in a previous post, but it’s worth noting here that the line in Kick-Ass “he looked like Batman” is a trademark fair use of the “Batman” trademark. The line was talking about Batman, and isn’t likely to confuse the audience into thinking that Kick-Ass was in some way endorsed by DC or Warner Bros.
Parody is the easiest of fair uses to define and protect, but the basic analysis is the same in all instances. Purpose of second use, nature of original work, amount taken, economic impact. My educational use in this blog is subject to the same analysis, in my case: 1. education, non-profit use, 2. Batman & Kick-Ass both commercial original uses, 3. my clips and pictures were just large enough to emphasize my point, 4. no one is going to skip seeing either movie because my blog usurped the core property. I win.
An even simpler stating of the fair use analysis is “Transformative qualities vs. Economic impact.” Have fun, use fairly, drive safely.