Law School Case Brief
Ringgold v. Black Entm't TV, Inc. - 126 F.3d 70 (2d Cir. 1997)
A "fair use" factor is the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. 17 U.S.C.S. § 107(4). It requires courts to consider not only the extent of market harm caused by the alleged infringer, but also whether unrestricted and widespread conduct of the sort engaged in by the defendant would result in substantially adverse impact on the potential market for the original.
Plaintiff Faith Ringgold owned the copyright in a work of art entitled "Church Picnic Story Quilt," a new form of artistic expression that Ringgold created. The design consisted of a painting, a handwritten text, and quilting fabric, all three of which Ringgold united to communicate parables. Some time prior to 1992, an affiliate of defendant Home Box Office, Inc. ("HBO") produced a television "sitcom" series in which a "Church Picnic" poster was used as part of the set decoration. As framed, the poster included a notice of copyright, but the type was too small to be discernible to a television viewer. The segments of the program in which the poster was visible to any degree lasted between 1.86 and 4.16 seconds. The aggregate duration of all nine segments was 26.75 seconds. Ringgold filed a lawsuit in federal district court against HBO and another broadcast company, defendant Black Entertainment Television, Inc. ("BET"), alleging infringement of her copyright in "Church Picnic Story Quilt," in violation of 17 U.S.C.S. § 106, based on the unauthorized use of the poster as part of the set decoration. Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, contending that their use of the poster was de minimis, and that their use of the poster was a permissible fair use, pursuant to 17 U.S.C.S. § 107. The district court denied Ringgold's motion for a preliminary injunction, granted defendants' motion for summary judgment, and dismissed the complaint. According to the district court, the undisputed facts established defendants’ fair use defense. Ringgold appealed.
Was the defendants use of the poster de minimize or a permissible fair use?
The court of appeals reversed the district court's judgment and remanded the case for further consideration of Ringgold's claim. As to the defense of de minimis use, the court examined the instances of defendants' use of Ringgold's work and rejected defendants' claim that the quantity of copying—or at least the quantity of observable copying—was below the threshold of actionable copying. The court ruled that the threshold for actionable copying of protected expression had been crossed by defendants. With respect to the fair use defense, the court considered four non-exclusive factors identified in 17 U.S.C.S. § 107. The court found the trial court's consideration of the first fair use factor—purpose and character of the use—was legally flawed in its failure to assess the decorative purpose for which defendants used Ringgold's work. In addition, the trial court's assessment of the fourth factor—effect of the use upon the potential market for the work—in favor defendants was legally flawed because Ringgold was not required to show a decline in the number of licensing requests for the poster since the television show aired.
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