Copyright’s fair use doctrine protects lots of important free expression against the threat of ruinous lawsuits. Fair use isn’t limited to political commentary or erudite works – it also protects popular entertainment like Tiger King, Netflix’s hit 2020 documentary series about the bizarre and sometimes criminal exploits of a group of big cat breeders. That’s why a federal appeals court’s narrow interpretation of fair use in a recent copyright suit threatens not just the producers of Tiger King but thousands of creators who make documentaries, histories, biographies, and even computer software. EFF and other groups asked the court to revisit its decision. Thankfully, the court just agreed to do so.

The case, Whyte Monkee Productions v. Netflix, was brought by a videographer who worked at the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, the Oklahoma attraction run by Joe Exotic that was chronicled in Tiger King. The videographer sued Netflix for copyright infringement over the use of his video clips of Joe Exotic in the series. A federal district court in Oklahoma found Netflix’s use of one of the video clips—documenting Joe Exotic’s eulogy for his husband Travis Maldonado—to be a fair use. A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed that decision and remanded the case, ruling that the use of the video was not “transformative,” a concept that’s often at the heart of fair use decisions.

The appeals court based its ruling on a mistaken interpretation of the Supreme Court’s opinion in Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts v. Goldsmith. Warhol was a deliberately narrow decision that upheld the Supreme Court’s prior precedents about what makes a use transformative while emphasizing that commercial uses are less likely to be fair. The Supreme Court held that commercial re-uses of a copyrighted work—in that case, licensing an Andy Warhol print of the artist Prince for a magazine cover when the print was based on a photo that was also licensed for magazine covers—required a strong justification. The Warhol Foundation’s use of the photo was not transformative, the Supreme Court said, because Warhol’s print didn’t comment on or criticize the original photograph, and there was no other reason why the foundation needed to use a print based on that photograph in order to depict Prince. In Whyte Monkee, the Tenth Circuit honed in on the Supreme Court’s discussion about commentary and criticism but mistakenly read it to mean that only uses that comment on an original work are transformative. The court remanded the case to the district court to re-do the fair use analysis on that basis.

As EFF, along with Authors Alliance, American Library Association, Association of Research Libraries, and Public Knowledge explained in an amicus brief supporting Netflix’s request for a rehearing, there are many kinds of transformative fair uses. People creating works of history or biography frequently reproduce excerpts from others’ copyrighted photos, videos, or artwork as indispensable historical evidence. For example, using sketches from the famous Zapruder film in a book about the assassination of President Kennedy was deemed fair, as was reproducing the artwork from Grateful Dead posters in a book about the band. Software developers use excerpts from others’ code—particularly declarations that describe programming interfaces—to build new software that works with what came before. And open government organizations, like EFF client Public.Resource.Org, use technical standards incorporated into law to share knowledge about the law. None of these uses involves commentary or criticism, but courts have found them all to be transformative fair uses that don’t require permission.

The Supreme Court was aware of these uses and didn’t intend to cast doubt on their legality. In fact, the Supreme Court cited to many of them favorably in its Warhol decision. And the Court even engaged in some non-commentary fair use itself when it included photos of Prince in its opinion to illustrate how they were used on magazine covers. If the Court had meant to overrule decades of court decisions, including its own very recent Google v. Oracle decision about software re-use, it would have said so.

Fortunately, the Tenth Circuit heeded our warning, and the warnings of Netflix, documentary filmmakers, legal scholars, and the Motion Picture Association, all of whom filed briefs. The court vacated its decision and asked for further briefing about Warhol and what it means for documentary filmmakers.

The bizarre story of Joe Exotic and his friends and rivals may not be as important to history as the Kennedy assassination, but fair use is vital to bringing us all kinds of learning and entertainment. If other courts start treating the Warhol decision as a radical rewriting of fair use law when that’s not what the Supreme Court said at all, many kinds of free expression will face an uncertain future. That’s why we’re happy that the Tenth Circuit withdrew its opinion. We hope the court will, as the Supreme Court did, reaffirm the importance of fair use.

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