Michael Modak-Truran


Is a Fair Use Forever Fair?

Michael Modak-Truran

Courts cannot predict the future, but their decisions are binding precedent on future generations. Technological changes—that courts could have never predicted—break down this system of stare decisis. What made sense yesterday no longer makes sense today. Leveraging an understanding of technology, the rule of law, and stare decisis, this Note proposes a new approach to copyright fair use decisionmaking that involves utility-expanding technologies, or tools that radically change the use of and access to copyrighted works. When applying past precedent, courts should carefully contextualize prior decisions’ analyses of the first and fourth fair use factors within the precedent’s time and perform a similar analysis for the current case in the current era. The more that the factual circumstances diverge between the two cases, the less weight the court should give to the past precedent. Moreover, when generating precedent on utility-expanding transformative fair uses, courts should narrow their fair use decisions to the dispute before the court and only rule on the specific technology in question—helping ensure that the balance between advancing technological interests and protecting the rights of content creators does not become rooted in shortsighted thinking from a materially different past.