Fair Use for Me but Not for Thee: Author Dependent on Fair Use Abuses Copyright Law to Silence Critics

If your books are famous for making fair use of pop culture, it would probably behoove you to understand that people using portions of your books in critiques of them…are also making fair uses.

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player Two, released in 2020, is a sequel to Cline’s popular novel titled Ready Player One. Like its predecessor, one of the key aspects of Ready Player Two is that its vision of the future depends heavily on a virtual reality made up of various chunks of 1980s pop culture—including works that were still under copyright in 2020. Of course, Cline was well within his fair use rights to remix those movies, songs, games, et cetera into this new world. In fact, the nostalgia was part of the point of the first novel—the virtual reality game had been built by someone longing for his ’80s childhood.

Given all that, it seems like it should be pretty obvious to Cline and/or his publisher that those sharing portions of his book to comment on it are also making fair uses. And yet.

In late 2020, Ready Player Two came in for some pretty severe criticism. Those writing about the book, especially in a negative way, found some of the excerpts they were criticizing taken down due to “a report from the copyright holder.” Where those excerpts included Cline’s own fair uses of other media, you end up with a nesting doll of copyright confusion.

For example, writer Laura Hudson did an extensive Twitter thread on the book, with quite a few images that are now blocked. It’s interesting to note that the images taken down are often the ones shared because Hudson is criticizing Cline’s writing on race, poverty, sex, feminism, policing, capitalism, gender, and sex. In all cases, Hudson is critiquing the way the book takes a white, male, cis, and rich persons perspective on these things. This means that the copyright claims are acting not just as a way to protect the book from criticism, but specifically criticism about the book’s views on groups who do not usually get a voice.

So many layers to this confusing and ironic series of takedowns.

November 25, 2020