Lenz v. Universal: Fair Use Must Be Considered before Takedown Notices Are Sent

United States District Judge Jeremy Fogel has refused to dismiss Stephanie Lenz's EFF-backed lawsuit against Universal Music Publishing Group that "asks for a declaratory judgment that Lenz's home video does not infringe any Universal copyright, as well as damages and injunctive relief restraining Universal from bringing further copyright claims in connection with the video." Universal had issued a takedown notice to YouTube for Lenz's brief video of her young son dancing to Prince's "Let's Go Crazy." The Judge ruled that fair use must be taken into account before takedown notices are issued by copyright holders.

Here's an excerpt from the ruling:

Though Congress did not expressly mention the fair use doctrine in the DMCA, the Copyright Act provides explicitly that "the fair use of a copyrighted work . . . is not an infringement of copyright." 17 U.S.C. § 107. Even if Universal is correct that fair use only excuses infringement, the fact remains that fair use is a lawful use of a copyright. Accordingly, in order for a copyright owner to proceed under the DMCA with "a good faith belief that use of the material in the manner complained of is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent, or the law," the owner must evaluate whether the material makes fair use of the copyright. 17 U.S.C. § 512(c)(3)(A)(v). An allegation that a copyright owner acted in bad faith by issuing a takedown notice without proper consideration of the fair use doctrine thus is sufficient to state a misrepresentation claim pursuant to Section 512(f) of the DMCA. Such an interpretation of the DMCA furthers both the purposes of the DMCA itself and copyright law in general. In enacting the DMCA, Congress noted that the "provisions in the bill balance the need for rapid response to potential infringement with the end-users [sic] legitimate interests in not having material removed without recourse." Sen. Rep. No. 105-190 at 21 (1998).

Universal suggests that copyright owners may lose the ability to respond rapidly to potential infringements if they are required to evaluate fair use prior to issuing takedown notices. Universal also points out that the question of whether a particular use of copyrighted material constitutes fair use is a fact-intensive inquiry, and that it is difficult for copyright owners to predict whether a court eventually may rule in their favor. However, while these concerns are understandable, their actual impact likely is overstated. Although there may be cases in which such considerations will arise, there are likely to be few in which a copyright owner's determination that a particular use is not fair use will meet the requisite standard of subjective bad faith required to prevail in an action for misrepresentation under 17 U.S.C. § 512(f).

Read more about it at "Fair Use Gets a Fair Shake: YouTube Tot to Get Day in Court," "Judge Rules That Content Owners Must Consider Fair Use before Sending Takedowns," "More (and More) Good News for Fair Use," and "Woman Can Sue over YouTube Clip De-Posting."

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