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The Bell Stopped Ringing

Court decides that School District's use of a book passage is fair use

As promised, here is an update on the Bell v Eagle Mountain-Saginaw School District case. If you'd like to read our previous posts related to this case please click here for the first, and here for the second.

In its opinion and order, the court used an extended comparison to a boxing match to explore each of the four factors to determine whether or not the tweet was fair use.

As a refresher, courts generally consider four factors in determining whether a use is fair: (1) the purpose and character of the use; (2) the nature of the copyrighted work; (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used; and (4) the effect of the use on the market for the copyrighted work.

In this case, the court first considered the purpose and character of the use. The court determined that the tax-funded school district's softball team didn't post the passage for commercial gain, but to inspire young athletes. The court concluded that, "Bell’s punch did not connect. As such, the purpose and character factor weigh[ed] in favor of finding fair use."

Second, the court considered the nature of the copyrighted work. According to the court, the portion used by Eagle Mountain was "undeniably factual." The court cited various sources noting that athletes must work hard to win, which the court characterized as "axiomatic." The court stated that this factual determination was "a devastating blow to Bell and the Court . . . [found] that this factor weigh[ed] heavily in favor of finding fair use."

Third, the court considered the amount and substantiality of the portion used. The court noted that both sides concede that the amount was quantitatively insignificant, just one page of a 72-page book. However, the court said the qualitative significance was "slightly less clear." In court filings, Bell claimed this specific page to be the "heart of the work," but the court stated Bell "provide[d] nothing beyond that plain, bare assertion." Given these findings, the court "separate[d] the clinched combatants and [found] that the third factor [was], at best, neutral."

Finally, the court turned to the effect on the market for the copyrighted work. The court stated that Bell provided no evidence to indicate a decrease in sales of his book after the initial tweet in 2017. The court noted that the tweet may possibly have improved sales of Bell's book. With this final determination, the court found that "Eagle Mountain slip[ped] Bell’s punch and the fourth factor favor[ed] finding fair use."

The court concluded that the use "constituted fair use," and that "Eagle Mountain w[on] by a knockout." The court also documented its analysis regarding attorneys fees, and ultimately awarded "Eagle Mountain costs and attorneys’ fees as to Bell’s copyright infringement claims." The court clarified that, "the fees shall be extracted solely from Bell, not his counsel." The court added that hopefully this ruling would be a "teaching moment" for Bell, that he "must understand that unsportsmanlike conduct and violations of the rules cannot and will not be tolerated."

On April 12, 2021, the court's final judgment stated that the the civil action was dismissed with prejudice.