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Book Review: Fair Use for Nonfiction Authors

Cover image for Fair Use for Nonfiction AuthorsBrianna L. Schofield and Robert Kirk Walker. Fair Use for Nonfiction Authors: Common Scenarios with Guidance from Community Practice (Berkeley: Authors Alliance, 2017).

Fair Use for Nonfiction Authors is the third in a series of short, helpful guides from the Authors Alliance (the first two were Understanding Open Access and Understanding Rights Reversion).  The guide was created “to help nonfiction authors understand reasonable strategies for the application of fair use in common situations.”  With the help of several scholarly societies, the authors distributed a survey which garnered the responses of 60 authors with nearly 150 fair use stories.  In addition to the survey responses, the guide was also shaped by existing codes of best practice in various domains.  Keep in mind that the concept of fair use is evolving, and that there are no clear tests of what is or is not fair use.  Also, the guide applies only to fair use in the United States (and neither the book nor this blog post constitute legal advice).

Four factors must be considered to determine whether using a copyrighted work is a fair use: the nature of the use, the nature of the work used, how much of the work is used, and the economic effect of the use.  Case law shows that judges tend to focus on two questions: whether the use was transformative, that is, was the use for a different purpose or did it give the material a different meaning; and was the material used appropriate in kind and amount?

The guide then goes on to cover three common situations encountered by nonfiction authors.  The first is criticizing, discussing, or commenting on copyrighted material.  This use is well established, but does have the following limitations: the amount used should be appropriate for the purpose; the use should be connected to the purpose; and reasonable attribution should be given to the author.  While U.S. copyright law does not require attribution, courts may find it a factor in favor of fair use, and of course it is standard practice in scholarship.

The second common situation is using a copyrighted work to illustrate, support, or prove an argument or point (unlike the situation above, here the copyrighted work is not the object of commentary).  This use is also well established, and shares the limitations above regarding attribution, the amount used, and a connection between the work and the point being made.  An additional limitation in this situation is that a use should not be made if it is merely decorative or entertaining.

The third common situation is using copyrighted works for non-consumptive research, such as text and data mining. For this more recent situation, fair use is strongly supported by existing case law. One caveat, however, is that databases being used in this manner must not have any contractual restrictions on text and data mining. And the material should not be employed in other ways, such as reading normally, or providing access to works digitized by the researcher. Real-life examples of fair use appear for all three situations described above, as well as hypothetical cases to test your knowledge.

The FAQ section of the guide covers creative and commercial uses, options when permission is refused, fair use for unpublished works, and contractual limitations on fair use.  Two questions of particular interest to researchers concern the re-use of figures, and the policies of journals and publishers that require permission for re-use of copyrighted work.  In the case of figures, including charts, graphs, and tables, it is important to remember that facts are not copyrightable.  Creatively expressed figures may be copyrightable; one must analyze each particular case according to the scenarios above.  It is worth mentioning here that some forward-thinking researchers are eliminating the permissions ambiguity regarding their own figures by making them available separately under a Creative Commons license.  Where publishers ignore fair use and require permissions to re-use copyrighted work, the guide recommends engaging with them to explain the rationale and referring them to a code of best practices where applicable.  Where fair use is integral to a work, it will be worth finding a publisher willing to rely on it.

The section “Beyond Fair Use” provides the following suggestions if your intended use does not qualify as fair use:

  • Modify your intended use
  • Ask the owner for permission (which may include paying a license fee)
  • Use an openly licensed work
  • Use a work in the public domain

Fair Use for Nonfiction Authors is an open access book (licensed CC BY) available online in PDF. If you would prefer a print copy, you can order one ($20) from the Authors Alliance, or check out the copy in Newman Library.  For more information, see the Authors Alliance fair use page, which in addition to the guide includes a FAQ, links to fair use resources, and fair use news.

Through June 15, the Authors Alliance has a crowdfunding campaign for an upcoming guide, Understanding Book Publication Contracts.  If you would like help support that guide, please consider a contribution.

Book Review: Understanding Rights Reversion

Open Access

Nicole Cabrera, Jordyn Ostroff, Brianna Schofield, and the Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic. Understanding Rights Reversion: When, Why & How to Regain Copyright and Make Your Book More Available (Berkeley: Authors Alliance, 2015).

Although I am familiar with copyright and licensing agreements for journal articles, I am less familiar with book publishing agreements. Rights reversion for books was a new concept to me, so the first guide published by the Authors Alliance had my attention right away (the group has since published a second guide, Understanding Open Access). This guide is intended for authors who, for whatever reason, may wish to reclaim rights to their books– rights that they transferred to their publishers when they signed a publishing agreement. It’s the result of “extensive interviews with authors, publishers, and literary agents who shared their perspectives on reverting rights, the author-publisher relationship, and keeping books available in today’s publishing environment.” The guide follows an “if-then” organization, referring readers to specific chapters depending on their situation, though I read it straight through (full disclosure: I’m an Authors Alliance supporter).

Early on, the authors define rights reversion and its availability:

“a right of reversion is a contractual provision that permits an author to regain some or all of the rights in her book from her publisher when the conditions specified in the provision are met… in practice, an author may be able to obtain a reversion of rights even if she has not met the conditions stipulated in her contract or does not have a reversion clause.” (p. 6-7)

This guide is intended for authors with publishing agreements already in place; it is not a guide to negotiating contracts (though it may inspire authors to examine the details of rights reversion clauses in new contracts).

The authors note that rights reversion becomes an issue for academic authors especially when their books fall out of print, sales drop, or their publishers stop marketing their books. In such instances, authors may wish to reclaim their rights (so that they can find another publisher to reissue the book or perhaps deposit the book in an open access online repository) but they find themselves constrained by the terms of their publishing agreements or they may not understand how how to go about reclaiming their rights. With these concerns in mind, the Authors Alliance “created this guide to help authors regain rights from their publishers or otherwise get the permission they need to make their books available in the ways they want.”

An important first step in the process is for authors to learn about different ways that they might increase their books’ availability (for example, electronic, audio, and braille versions as well as translations). Next, the guide helps authors determine if they have transferred to their publishers the rights necessary to make their books available in the ways they want. Older contracts may be ambiguous regarding e-book versions; the guide advises authors on how to negotiate the ambiguity. An additional consideration is that permissions for usage of third-party content may no longer be in effect.

Some examples of reversion clauses are provided in chapter 4, pointing out triggering conditions (such as out of print, sales below a certain threshold, or a term of years), written notice requirements, and timelines. It’s important to understand how the triggering conditions are defined, as well as how to determine whether they have been met, and the authors provide good suggestions for finding this information.

The publisher’s plans for the book should be discovered, and the guide emphasizes reasonable, professional conversations with publishers. The success stories throughout the book are particularly valuable in this respect.

Chapter 6 details how to proceed if a book contract does not include a rights reversion clause:

“Ultimately, whether a publisher decides to revert rights typically depends on the book’s age, sales, revenue, and market size, as well as the publisher’s relationship with the author and the manner in which the author presents his request.” (p. 77)

Before requesting reversion, an author should have a plan in place, review all royalty statements, and discover the publisher’s plans for the book. Being reasonable, flexible, creative, and persistent are the golden rules for negotations with a publisher. Precedents can be persuasive, so inquire with friends and colleagues who are authors. If electronic access is important, be aware that many publishers are actively digitizing their backfiles. In this respect, an author might draw a publisher’s attention to the increasing evidence that open access versions don’t harm sales, and can sometimes increase them as a result of improved discovery.

Understanding Rights Reversion is itself an open access book (licensed CC BY) available online in PDF. If you would prefer a print copy, it’s available in Newman Library, or you can order one ($20) from the Authors Alliance. For more information, see the Authors Alliance rights reversion portal, which includes rights reversion case studies that occurred after the publication of this guide. The Guide to Crafting a Reversion Letter, a companion to the guide containing sample language and templates, has just been released.

Thanks to Peter Potter, Director of Publishing Strategy at the University Libraries, for his feedback on this blog post (contact him if you have questions about book publishing- he has a wealth of experience). Thanks also to the Open Library for the cover image.