Fair Use As Cultural Appropriation

70 Pages Posted: 20 Nov 2020 Last revised: 20 Aug 2021

See all articles by Trevor Reed

Trevor Reed

Arizona State University Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law

Date Written: April 4, 2019


Over the last four decades, scholars from diverse disciplines have documented a wide variety of cultural appropriations from Indigenous peoples and the harms these have inflicted. Copyright law provides at least some protection against appropriations of Indigenous culture—particularly for copyrightable songs, dances, oral histories, and other forms of Indigenous cultural creativity. But it is admittedly an imperfect fit for combatting cultural appropriation, allowing some publicly beneficial uses of protected works without the consent of the copyright owner under certain exceptions, foremost being copyright’s fair use doctrine. This article evaluates fair use as a gatekeeping mechanism for unauthorized uses of copyrighted culture, one which empowers courts to sanction or disapprove of cultural appropriations to further copyright’s goal of promoting creative production.

As codified in the 1976 Copyright Revision Act, the fair use doctrine’s four-part test is supposed to help fact finders determine the reasonableness of an unauthorized appropriation. But, while the fair use test has evolved to address questions about the purpose behind an appropriation, the amount and substance of the work used, and the effects of the appropriation on the market for the work, the vital inquiry about the “nature” of the original work and the impact of unauthorized appropriation on its creative environment has been all but forgotten by lower federal courts. Combining doctrinal analysis, settler-colonial theory, and ethnographic fieldwork involving ongoing appropriations of copyrightable Indigenous culture, this article shows how this “forgotten factor” in the fair use analysis is key to assessing the real impacts unauthorized appropriations have on culturally diverse forms of creativity. Thus, if we are committed to the development of creativity in all of its varieties and natures, a rehabilitation of the forgotten factor is both urgent and necessary.

Keywords: copyright, native american, indigenous, fair use, cultural appropriation, tribe, ontology, nature

JEL Classification: K11

Suggested Citation

Reed, Trevor, Fair Use As Cultural Appropriation (April 4, 2019). Forthcoming, California Law Review, Vol. 109, 2021, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3456164 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3456164

Trevor Reed (Contact Author)

Arizona State University Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law ( email )

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