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For more than two-hundred years, the issue of fair use has been the province of the jury. That recently changed when the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals decided Oracle America, Inc. v. Google LLC. At issue was whether Google fairly used portions of Oracle’s computer software when Google created an operating system for smartphones. The jury found Google’s use to be fair, but the Federal Circuit reversed. Importantly, the Federal Circuit applied a de novo standard of review to reach its conclusion, departing from centuries of precedent.

Oracle raises a fundamental question in jurisprudence: Who should decide an issue – judge or jury? For the issue of fair use, the Seventh Amendment dictates that the jury should decide. The Seventh Amendment guarantees a right to a jury where an issue would have been heard by English common-law courts in 1791. Fair use is such an issue: early copyright cases make clear that juries decided fair-use issues at common law. Furthermore, the recent Supreme Court case of U.S. Bank National Ass’n v. Village at Lakeridge, LLC instructs appellate courts to employ a deferential standard in reviewing mixed questions of law and fact that resist factual generalizations. The question of fair use resists factual generalizations, turning on circumstances and factual nuances specific to each case. U.S. Bank thus suggests a deferential review. Importantly, this conclusion is consistent with the Supreme Court’s instruction in Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. v. Nation Enterprises, where the Court applied an independent review of a district court’s finding on fair use. The context of the Harper Court’s independent review was a bench trial, and at that time, courts treated the review of fair use at a bench trial differently from the review of fair use at a jury trial. Finally, juries are simply better positioned than judges to decide the sort of issues that arise in fair-use cases. Those issues call for subjective judgments that turn on cultural understandings and social norms, and the heterogeneous perspective of a jury is particularly valuable in making these judgments. Thus, the Federal Circuit in Oracle wrongly applied a de novo standard. The Constitution, precedent, and sound policy mandate deference to the jury.


Published here with the permission of Washington Law Review.

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