An infamous copyright lawsuit involving Prince’s classic “Let’s Go Crazy” and a dancing baby has been toiling in the court system since 2007. On Tuesday, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco delivered a decision that not only took the wind out of Prince’s sails, but set a strict new precedent for rights holder’s ability to issue takedown notices.
In February 2007, Pennsylvania mother Stephanie Lenz posted a 29-second video to YouTube of her baby pushing a toy around and bopping to “Let’s Go Crazy”. In June of that year, a staffer at Universal Music Group assigned to issue YouTube takedown notices for any “significant use” (more than one-second long and not drowned out) of their copyrighted material found the clip and determined the song (not the baby) was the focus of the video. A takedown notice was sent, and in accordance with federal law, the video was immediately pulled.
After Lenz cried foul, the video was restored some six weeks later. Universal never actually threatened a copyright infringement lawsuit; however, under a law giving people the right to sue for “mistaken or wrongful denial of access to a posting or publication,” Lenz filed her own suit. In an appeal, UMG argued that the pulldown was completely legal, as the label felt it had a “good-faith belief” that Prince’s copyright had been violated.
Now, here’s where the new Court of Appeals decision comes in. Lenz’s lawyers argued that UMG failed to consider “fair use” prior to issuing the takedown note, and as a result are liable for damages. Judge Richard Tallman and the two other members of the Court agreed that UMG likely hadn’t done its due diligence, opening the path for Lenz to take the rights company to court.
By definition, fair use includes short, private postings that do little to threaten the actual commercial value of a piece of work, as well as journalism, criticism, and educational uses. While the legal obligation to consider fair use has always been part of the takedown laws allowing copyright-holders to demand the removal of works in everything from YouTube videos to news broadcasts, it’s an aspect that had never been tested in court until now.
According to Lenz’s lawyer from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Corynee McSherry, the ruling “sends a strong message that copyright law does not authorize thoughtless censorship of lawful speech.” She added, “Congress gave copyright-holders extraordinary power to send an e-mail and take content offline. With that kind of power comes responsibility to consider whether the posting was authorized.”
The ruling paves the path not only for Lenz to move forward with her suit, but for others who feel posts were removed without fair use consideration to more easily take copyright holders to court. While these types of cases rarely produce big paydays for the winners, they do make the defendants pay lawyers fees as well as costs. The next step will be to take the wrongful denial of access before a jury to decide if UMG actually failed to consider fair use, as well as if the posting should be protected under the statute.