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Fair Use: The Foundation of Jon Stewart’s Success

· February 13, 2015

Jon Stewart’s announcement on February 10 that he will be retiring from The Daily Show later this year has been met with tributes to his comic genius and his impact on political discourse. But these tributes have overlooked the legal doctrine that has enabled Stewart to be so effective: fair use. (This is my second post this week about the importance of fair use to popular culture; on Tuesday I wrote about how the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy was first written as fair use-dependent fan fiction based on the Twilight vampire series.)

Stewart’s most powerful critiques result from his juxtaposing clips of politicians and commentators on news broadcasts to demonstrate their hypocrisy. He’ll contrast a clip of a Fox News commentator expressing outrage at President Obama taking a particular action with a clip of the same commentator praising President Bush for taking a similar same action. Stewart also uses montages of clips from CNN and other news networks to demonstrate their simultaneously sensationalistic and superficial coverage of disasters and trials. But for fair use, Stewart’s rebroadcast of these clips would be willful copyright infringement, subject to statutory damages of up to $150,000 per clip.

Jon Stewart’s heavy use of clips for the purpose of humorous political criticism has inspired other comedians to emulate him, most notably his former “correspondents” Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report and John Oliver on Last Week Tonight. Stewart’s reliance on clips no doubt has also encouraged the growth of the remix culture online, where individuals combine clips of preexisting works for the purpose of political or artistic expression.

Stewart’s reliance on fair use likely made him progressive on other copyright matters. He supported fans distributing excerpts of The Daily Show online, he questioned the position of Viacom (the owner of Comedy Central, the channel that carries The Daily Show) in its litigation with YouTube, and he opposed SOPA.

Additionally, Jon Stewart’s fair use of clips has had a positive impact on policymakers. The Daily Show is perhaps the easiest example to give lawmakers and their staffs of the importance of fair use. A reference to The Daily Show makes them instantly understand how fair use functions, in Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s words, as one of the copyright law’s built-in accommodations to the First Amendment. Further, The Daily Show demonstrates clearly that large media companies (e.g., Viacom) rely on fair use.

Jon Stewart has not announced what he will do after he leaves The Daily Show. But it is hard to imagine that the greatest practitioner of fair use in this generation will not at some point embark on another venture that employs fair use.

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