Abbott and Costello’s successors-in-interest sued the author and producers of the play Hand to God for copyright infringement. The play used a little over a minute of the Abbott and Costello “Who’s on First?” routine almost verbatim without authorization. The district court ruled that the use of the “Who’s on First?” routine in the play Hand to God was a fair use and not copyright infringement. My post Who’s on First? Copyright Infringement Question as Tangled as the Routine discusses the district court’s ruling.
On appeal, the Second Circuit held that the district court erred in ruling that the use of the routine in the play was a fair use. Nevertheless, the Second Circuit upheld the district court’s ruling in favor of the play’s author and producers on the alternative ground that Abbott and Costello’s successors-in-interest failed to plead a valid copyright interest. Since the play’s creators did not cross appeal the district court’s ruling that the Abbott and Costello successors-in-interest owned a valid copyright, the only issue on appeal was whether the district court correctly ruled that the use of the routine in the play was a fair use. The Second Circuit was obligated to rule on the fair use question before considering whether to uphold the district court’s ruling on an alternative theory. Had the Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s fair use analysis, the Second Circuit would not have considered the copyright validity question.
The Second Circuit did not discuss whether it was even appropriate for the district court to consider fair use on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Fair use is an affirmative defense and is the defendant’s burden to prove, not the plaintiff’s. Fair use should not be decided on a motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s complaint for failure to state a claim.