Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued a consequential opinion on the meaning and scope of what has become the “transformative use” factor of the fair use defense to copyright infringement. TCA Television Corp. v. McCollum, No. 16-134-cv-, __ F.3d __, 2016 WL 5899174 (2d Cir. Oct. 11, 2016). While transformative use is one consideration within the first of four factors applied to determine whether a use of a copyrighted work is “fair” and thus not an act of infringement, it has become the predominant consideration in the Second Circuit. And while it is fair to say that the Second Circuit in recent decisions has stretched the scope of what had previously been considered a transformative use, McCollum appears to pull back on that expansion.
In a unanimous 3-0 ruling, the Second Circuit ruled that a Broadway play’s verbatim performance of a full minute from the iconic Abbott and Costello routine, “Who’s on First,” in a scene between an introverted, small-town boy and his demonic sock puppet, was not transformative or otherwise fair use as a matter of law. In doing so, the court rejected Southern District of New York Judge George B. Daniels’ dismissal (at the pleading stage) of the plaintiff (“TCA”)’s copyright infringement action on the basis of fair use. (The Circuit affirmed on the separate ground that plaintiffs failed to plausibly allege a valid copyright interest.)