Bell v. The Milwaukee Bd. of Sch. Dirs., 123 LRP 2649 (E.D. Wis. 12/21/22).
The Eastern District of Wisconsin recently dismissed an author’s copyright infringement claim against a high school basketball coach and school district finding in favor of the school district’s fair use defense.
Dr. Keith Bell, author of the book “Winning isn’t normal” sued a high school basketball coach and school district after the coach retweeted a famous excerpt from the book. Bell alleged that not only did the coach violate the copyright of the book as a whole when he retweeted the passage, but separately violated the copyright of the famous “Winning isn’t normal” passage from within the book as well.
The school district asserted that the retweet was fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976. Fair use, which is a defense to copyright infringement claims, allows for the use of copyrighted work, under certain conditions, without permission of the copyright owner. Under the Copyright Act, a court must consider four factors when applying the fair use doctrine: (1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether it’s for commercial or nonprofit educational purposes; (2) the nature of the copyrighted work; (3) the amount used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for the copyrighted work.
The court found that while the coach’s retweet copied the entirety of a “somewhat creative passage,” his action was balanced against the fact that the passage was freely available on the internet and the author’s website. Additionally, the court noted that while the retweeted passage was the “heart” of the book, the copied passage was a relatively small portion of the book and was entirely noncommercial. Furthermore, the court found that the retweet did no damage to the author’s financial position, and that the retweet may even help the author’s position by increasing the public’s interest in the book as a whole. Thus, the District Court held that the coach’s retweet of the “Winning isn’t normal” passage was fair use and the author’s claim had to be dismissed.
What does this mean for your district? To avoid copyright infringement claims, districts should train their staff on how to avoid using or sharing copyrighted material without permission. With the rise of school districts and district employees using social media, school districts should ensure that any social media training should include what may and may not be shared to avoid copyright infringement claims. Fair use is not as simple as some believe in terms of educational use and so while the coach’s actions were vindicated here, caution is warranted.