The International Three-Step Test: A Model Provision for EC Fair Use Legislation

Journal of Intellectual Property, Information Technology and E-Commerce Law, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 67-82, 2010

16 Pages Posted: 12 Dec 2010  

Martin Senftleben

VU University Amsterdam - Faculty of Law

Date Written: June 1, 2010


The three-step test is central to the regulation of copyright limitations at the international level. Delineating the room for exemptions with abstract criteria, the three-step test is by far the most important and comprehensive basis for the introduction of national use privileges. It is an essential, flexible element in the international limitation infrastructure that allows national law makers to satisfy domestic social, cultural, and economic needs. Given the universal field of application that follows from the test’s open-ended wording, the provision creates much more breathing space than the more specific exceptions recognized in international copyright law.

EC copyright legislation, however, fails to take advantage of the flexibility inherent in the three-step test. Instead of using the international provision as a means to open up the closed EC catalogue of permissible exceptions, offer sufficient breathing space for social, cultural, and economic needs, and enable EC copyright law to keep pace with the rapid development of the Internet, the Copyright Directive 2001/29/EC encourages the application of the three-step test to further restrict statutory exceptions that are often defined narrowly in national legislation anyway.

In the current online environment, however, enhanced flexibility in the field of copyright limitations is indispensable. From a social and cultural perspective, the web 2.0 promotes and enhances freedom of expression and information with its advanced search engine services, interactive platforms, and various forms of user-generated content. From an economic perspective, it creates a parallel universe of traditional content providers relying on copyright protection, and emerging Internet industries whose further development depends on robust copyright limitations. In particular, the newcomers in the online market – social networking sites, video forums, and virtual worlds – promise a remarkable potential for economic growth that has already attracted the attention of the OECD.

Against this background, the time is ripe to debate the introduction of an EC fair use doctrine on the basis of the three-step test. Otherwise, EC copyright law is likely to frustrate important opportunities for cultural, social, and economic development. To lay groundwork for the debate, the differences between the continental European and the Anglo-American approach to copyright limitations (section 1), and the specific merits of these two distinct approaches (section 2), will be discussed first. An analysis of current problems that have arisen under the present dysfunctional EC system (section 3) will then serve as a starting point for proposing an EC fair use doctrine based on the three-step test (section 4). Drawing conclusions, the international dimension of this fair use proposal will be considered (section 5).

Keywords: Three-Step Test, Fair Use, Private Copying, Search Engines, Right of Quotation, User-Generated Content, Press Summaries, International Harmonization

Suggested Citation

Senftleben, Martin, The International Three-Step Test: A Model Provision for EC Fair Use Legislation (June 1, 2010). Journal of Intellectual Property, Information Technology and E-Commerce Law, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 67-82, 2010. Available at SSRN:

Martin Senftleben (Contact Author)

VU University Amsterdam - Faculty of Law ( email )

De Boelelaan 1105
1081 HV Amsterdam


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