By Karen A. Frenkel
A mother’s act of whimsy leads to a legal showdown.
Karen A. Frenkel is a New York-based technology and science writer. Her articles appear on ScientificAmerican.com and in Communications of the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery). More information on Frenkel is available on her website. This article appears in the “Defining Internet Freedom” issue of eJournal USA.
When Pennsylvania mom Stephanie Lenz posted a video of her children dancing to Prince’s song “Let’s Go Crazy” on YouTube in February 2007, she did not expect to tangle with a pop music superstar and a corporate giant. Universal Music Corporation, which owns the rights to Prince’s song, halted her attempt to share her children’s antics. The world’s biggest record company requested that YouTube remove the video, which it did. The record label claimed Lenz had violated its copyright as protected by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), and asked YouTube to remove the video. Mrs. Lenz’s dancing children lost their place on the Internet.
“I was really surprised and angry when I learned my video was removed,” Lenz told online free-speech advocates at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). “Universal should not be using legal threats to try to prevent people from sharing home videos.”
The DMCA was enacted in 1998 as the United States’ implementation of an international copyright treaty. It gives Internet hosting companies and interactive services like social networking sites near immunity from their users who violate intellectual property. These companies must remove material if a copyright holder sends a takedown notice, but they can restore that content if the copyright claimant does not sue and if the user who posted the material certifies that it is non-infringing.
As a result of DMCA, today’s Internet breaks the barriers between content providers and content consumers, allowing a vast audience to create and distribute content without fear that hosts could be sued out of business. But there’s ample evidence that amateur producers don’t understand fully the intellectual property laws or their legal responsibilities.
The EFF sued Universal on Lenz’s behalf. EFF argued that her 29-second video, featuring the barely audible song, did not infringe the label’s copyright, that the record giant had failed to consider Lenz’s “fair-use” right to post the clip, and had chilled her free speech.
Fair use is a grey area in U.S. copyright law because it allows limited quotations from an author’s work without permission. But the law lacks specifics about the length and nature of allowable quotes, and how they might be used.
Meanwhile, Prince told Reuters he intended to “reclaim his art on the Internet,” and Universal announced plans to remove all user-generated content involving the artist from the Internet as a matter of principle.
The court sided with EFF and Lenz, ruling in August 2008 that Universal had not considered fair use for each work before issuing indiscriminate takedown notices. It had therefore abused the DMCA, the court concluded. YouTube reinstated Lenz’s dancing babies, and the parties are struggling over who should pay legal fees and damages.