Should TV Content Owners Fear Fair Use?

Opinion: Think of it as a strategy rather than an obstacle

Is it OK to share this clip, or ... ?
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When it comes to copyright laws, there is a grey area that many companies find confusing to navigate. “Fair use” in its most general sense is a copyright law intended to determine when unauthorized use of content infringes on the owner’s rights. But in this digital age, when content is literally everywhere, should content owners and advertising brands embrace fair use as a way to get more eyes on their content?

As more TV fans create short clips of their favorite TV moments, that content is often shared widely across the digital world, potentially gaining new fans. For every sports clip replayed on Twitter, Facebook or Reddit, there are hundreds or thousands of free impressions that networks and sports leagues are gaining.

As users clip and share content, networks earn free promotion with no work on the company’s behalf. Brands that advertise on a TV show would jump at the opportunity to amplify their content on social media with short pre-rolls of their ads with clips from enthusiastic users sharing with their friends.

Some content owners fear that sharing these short clips will threaten their revenue, or someone will repurpose their content to generate profit. Others realize that copyright statutes are “fuzzy” at best but reserve the right to take legal action. This confusion around fair use has an even more chilling effect on fans as they fear that clipping and sharing content could potentially get them in legal trouble, when most often, they are protected by fair use.

In the end, networks often overspend on legal actions and other policing efforts and miss out on a new revenue stream, as well as free promotion. When networks share clips on their social pages or websites, they are only reaching existing fans. However, fans posting clips on social media expose the content to a whole new realm of people—fans recruiting new fans.

As we’ve seen in previous fair use cases with YouTube, Fox and Google, many of the outcomes occur on a case-by-case basis, or when a content owner disagrees with the use of its media. However, technology advancements (like, in the past, the VCR) almost always lead to higher revenue for content owners in the end. Ultimately, not embracing fair use encourages piracy, and courts are clear that appropriate fair use is a citizen’s right, not a defense.

Fair use does not need to be a cloudy concept that content owners continuously debate. Networks can work with brands and technology companies to help fans stay under the umbrella of fair use and utilize their enthusiasm toward content (free labor) as a strategy. Both content owners and advertising brands can use TV fan clips to build engagement through contests and clip discovery sites. For networks to reap the benefits of fair use, they must integrate these opportunities to approach fair use as an amplification method.

Sharing short TV clips enables fans to express their enthusiasm and spark discussion. With a little effort, content owners can generate revenue and awareness by encouraging fans that they remain under the fair use umbrella, while brands get to piggyback on TV ads with a unique digital social thrust.

Overall, content owners and brands need to begin thinking of fair use as a strategy rather than an obstacle.

Jim Long is CEO of Didja, a creator of consumer applications that promote engagement with live, over-the-air television.