Who’s on Second (Circuit)? Transformative fair use

By Marie-Andrée Weiss

The Second Circuit found on 11 October 2016 that verbatim use of the famous ‘Who’s on First’ Abbott and Costello routine in the Hand to God play was not transformative enough to be fair use. The Second Circuit nevertheless affirmed the dismissal of the lower judgment as Plaintiffs did not have a valid copyright interest in the routine. The case is TCA Television Corp. v. McCollum, No. 1:16-cv-0134 (2d Cir. Oct. 11, 2016).

William ‘Bud’ Abbott and Lou Costello formed a comedy duo which was popular in the thirties and forties. Who’s on First is one their most famous routines, where Abbott plays the manager of a baseball team which Costello just joined. The newbie wants to know the name of his fellow players and the manager obliges: they are “Who,” “What,” and “I Don’t Know.” Misunderstandings ensue, fired up at a rapid pace. The routine was named “Best comedy routine of the 20th Century” by Time magazine in 1999.

The play Hand to God, written by Robert Askins, was shown off-Broadway in 2011 at The Ensemble Studio Theatre, and has since been shown on Broadway and in London. The play is about Jason, an introverted young man from a small Texas town who participates in his church’s “Christian Puppet Ministry,” a sock puppet show. Tyrone, Jason’s sock puppet takes a life on its own and blurts out embarrassing facts, maybe because it is an incarnation of the devil, maybe because Jason uses him to say what he truly thinks. Jason recites Who’s on First, with Tyrone as his partner, to a young woman in order impress her, and then pretends that he is the one who came up with the routine. Tyrone then calls him a liar and tells the girl she is stupid for believing that Jason indeed created the routine. An excerpt of that scene was used in a promotional video for the play.

When Abbott and Costello’s heirs learned about this use, they filed a copyright infringement suit against the Ensemble Studio Theatre and the playwright in the Southern District of New York (SDNY). Defendants conceded that they had used part of the routine, but argued in defense that is was “part of a sophisticated artistic expression” and also that Plaintiffs do not own a valid copyright in the routine.

On December 17, 2015, Judge Daniels from the SDNY dismissed the copyright infringement suit brought by Plaintiffs because, while Plaintiffs had indeed established a continuous chain of title in the copyright, use of the routine by Defendants was fair use. Plaintiffs appealed.

 

The use of the routine is not protected by fair use

Plaintiffs had argued that the play had not added anything new to the original routine as Jason merely recited it without transforming it, and that therefore is was not fair use. The Second Circuit agreed.

When examining whether a particular use of a work protected by copyright is fair, courts use the four factors enumerated by Section 107 of the Copyright Act: the purpose and character of the use, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount and substantiality of the portion used and the effect of the use on the market.

Judge Daniels had found, when examining the purpose and the character of the use of the routine in the play, that it was transformative enough to be fair use. He had cited the Second Circuit Cariou v. Prince case, where the Court had found that Richard Prince’s use of Cariou’s photographs to create new works was transformative enough to be fair use because Prince had “employ[ed] new aesthetics with creative and communicative results distinct from Cariou’s” and also had incorporated “new expression” in his works.

For Judge Daniels, “the performance through the anti-hero puppet… create[d] new aesthetics and understandings about the relationship between horror and comedy that are absent from Abbott and Costello’s… routine.” He further explained that “[t]he contrast between Jason’s s seemingly soft-spoken personality and the actual outrageousness of his inner nature, which he expresses through the sock puppet, is, among other things, a darkly comedic critique of the social norms governing a small town in the Bible Belt.”

The Second Circuit found this reasoning to be “flawed in what it identifies are the general artistic and critical purpose and character of the [p]lay” and that the court did not explain how “extensive copying of [the] routine was necessary to this purpose.” Section 107 enumerates the uses which are fair: criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship and research. For the Second Circuit, the use of the routine “does not appear to fit within any of these statutory categories.”

Even though the Second Circuit had held in Cariou that it is not essential that a use comments on the original work to be transformative, it also held that a use is transformative only if it alters the original work with “new expression, meaning, or message.” For the Second Circuit, this was not the case as the routine had not been altered in the play, but used for what it is, a famous classic routine, instantly recognizable by the audience. The Court quoted its own On Davis v. Gap, Inc. case which explained that a use is not transformative if it used the original “in the manner it was made to be” used. The Court pointed out that it was necessary that the routine is not altered, so that the audience can recognize it and laugh when Jason pretends he created it. For the Second Circuit, the use of the routine is  a mere “McGuffin,” an event which sets the plot, in that case informing the audience that Tyrone the sock puppet can speak unprompted and has a foul mouth. However, not “any new dramatic purpose justif[ied] [d]efendants’ extensive copying of the [r]outine.” As the use was not transformative, the purpose and character of the use factor weighed in Plaintiff’s favor.

The Court also found that the nature of the work factor weighed in favor of Plaintiffs, as the routine was created to entertain the public, and thus is “at the heart of copyright’s intended protection.” It dismissed Defendants’ argument that use of the routine was justified by the need to use “an instantly recognizable “cultural” touchstone in the relevant scene” because Defendants could have used another cultural touchstone, such as “inventing the Internet” or “out-swimming Michael Phelps.” These examples are not convincing as they are not examples of cultural touchstones performed by a duo, a format which was needed in a play about a man and his evil sock puppet.

The amount and substantiality of the use factor weighted “strongly” in favor of Plaintiffs as the copying of the original work was “substantial” and because, while even a substantial use can be fair use “if justified,” it was not the case here. The fourth factor, the effect on the potential market, also did weigh in favor of Plaintiffs because there is a licensing market for the routine.

However, even though all of the fair use factors weighed in favor of Plaintiffs, the Second Circuit nevertheless affirmed the dismissal of the case because Plaintiffs failed to prove they own a valid copyright in the routine.

 

Plaintiffs do not own the copyright in Who’s on First

Judge Daniels had found that Plaintiffs had proven a continuous chain of title in the copyright of the routine, but the Second Circuit disagreed.

The routine was first performed in 1938 on the radio. It was also performed by Abbot and Costello in their 1940 One Night in the Tropics movie (Tropics) and in 1945 in their Naughty Nineties movie. As both the routine and the two movies were created before January 1, 1978, date of the entry into force of the 1976 Copyright Act, they are subject to the 1909 Copyright Act, which only protects published or registered works. A work was protected for twenty-eight years under the 1909 Copyright Act, if it was published with the required copyright notice. However, public performance of a work was not a publication under the 1909 Copyright Act, Silverman v. CBS Inc. (SDNY 1986), and therefore the routine was not first published in 1938, but in 1940. Unpublished and unregistered works were protected indefinitely by common law, but became automatically protected by copyright on January 1, 1978.

In November 1940, Abbot and Costello allegedly assigned their rights in the routine as performed in the two movies to Universal Pictures Company (UPC), which registered the copyright of Tropics in 1940 and of The Naughty Nineties in 1945, and timely renewed both copyrights. As the common law copyright of the routine as first performed in 1938 was never assigned, Abbot and Costello had retained it. They registered a copyright for “Abbott and Costello Baseball Routine” in 1944, but did not renew it and thus the work is in the public domain since 1972.

Plaintiff did not rely on the 1944 registration to claim they own the copyright, but rather in an agreement made in 1984 where UPC quitclaimed all of its rights in the performance of the routine to Abbott &Costello Enterprises (ACE), a general partnership formed by the comedians’ heirs. ACE was later dissolved and copyrights’ ownership were divided among Abbot and Costello heirs.

Defendants had argued that the routine was in the public domain because only Abbott and Costello could have renewed the copyright of the movies, but Plaintiffs argued that UPC had the authority to do it because the comedians had assigned ownership of their common law copyright in the routine to UPC, the routine had merged into Tropics, and the copyright was transferred to ACE by the quitclaim.

For Judge Daniels, the 1940 registration of the One Night movie by UPC in 1940 “extinguished whatever common law copyright Abbott and Costello had in the unpublished version of the [r]outine.” However, the Second Circuit found that Abbott and Costello had merely intended to license the use of the routine to UPC, not to assign their common law copyright in it. The Second Circuit did not interpret the agreement as being a work-for-hire agreement either, because the routine had already been created in 1938 and thus could not have been created at UPC’s “instance and expense” as required it to be a work for hire, Playboy Enters., v. Dumas (2d Cir. 1995). The routine had not merged in the movies either, as “authors of freestanding works that are incorporated into a film… may copyright these ‘separate and independent works’”, 16 Casa Duse, LLC v. Merkin (2d Cir. 2015) and the routine is such a freestanding work.

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