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Mom Makes Progress in Suing Universal For Taking Down Her YouTube Video

On February 8, 2007, Stephanie Lenz uploaded a 29-second home movie of her son walking around her kitchen and dancing to YouTube.  Her son is bopping along to the beat of Prince’s “Let’s Get Crazy.” Unlike some YouTube videos, this music was not added after through an editing process – it is merely the song that was on in the background in her house and the time and therefore was recorded on the video. Despite the brevity and the seemingly incidental use of the song, Universal sent a take-down notice to You-Tube claiming that this video violated its copyright. And You-Tube complied. Not only did Lenz file a counter-notice pursuant to 17 U.S.C. §512(g), she also filed suit pursuant to 17 U.S.C. §512(f), arguing that at the time it sent the take-down notice, Universal knew that the video she had posted was not infringing. On February 25, 2010, Judge Fogel granted Lenz partially summary judgment in the case. A close examination of the decision reveals two key decisions in the first instance, which both clarify aspects of 512(f): content which falls under fair use in not infringing, and though there is no requirement of monetary harm, there is a proximate cause requirement for the damages claimed.

Content Which Falls Under Fair Use Is Not Infringing

One of the elements that Lenz had to prove for her 512(f) claim was that Universal knowingly asked YouTube to take down a video that was not infringing. In its brief, Universal tries to claim that this can never happen when it argued that “because fair use is a defense to an otherwise infringing use, Universal could not – under any analysis – have made any misrepresentations (knowing or otherwise) when it notified YouTube that Plaintiff had incorporated “Let’s Go Crazy” into her video without authorization from the copyright owner.”

To understand this difference, it’s helpful to look at criminal law. Defenses to crimes tend to fall into two different categories: “I didn’t do it” or “I did it, but I had to.” One helpful analogy is to look at a self-defense argument in the case of murder. You are still admitting that you killed someone and that that is wrong, but you are also arguing that it should be excused for some other reason (generally that the person you killed was threatening you).

Similarly, Universal is arguing that each and every post that uses infringing content in any way, even those ways explicitly identified by the statute as fair uses, are infringements on copyright. They claim that fair use is an affirmative defense (the self-defense of copyright) which may excuse the infringement after the fact, but which does not change the legal status of the original use.

It is easy to see why Universal would seek such a ruling. If this were the case, Universal or any other copyright owner would not need to take any care when sending out takedown notices to ensure that the use was infringing. It could simply send out notices as it chooses and potentially rely even further upon automated processes to do so.

Fortunately, the judge pointed out, both in this decision and a prior one, that this seems to be clearly wrong. In the prior order, Judge Fogel states that “if copyright owners are immune from liability by virtue of ownership alone, then to a large extent Section 512(f) is superfluous.” This is clearly the correct decision. After all, fair use is even defined in the statute as non-infringing: “Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work…is not an infringement of copyright.”

No Requirement of Monetary Harm, But Must Prove Proximate Cause

This latest decision focused heavily on a discussion of what damages are available to a plaintiff in a case like this. Both parties put forward competing interpretations of the language of 512(f). The relevant language states that a party in violation of the section “shall be liable for any damages, including costs and attorneys’ fees, incurred by the alleged infringer, by any copyright owner or copyright owner’s authorized licensee, or by a service provider, who is injured by such misrepresentation, as the result of the service provider relying upon such misrepresentation in removing or disabling access to the material or activity claimed to be infringing, or in replacing the removed material or ceasing to disable access to it.”

Lenz argued that the phrase “any damages” should be interpreted to mean “any harm whatsoever” and points out that this language is broader than the “actual damages” language used in other areas of Title 17. Universal contested this reading, stating that the “actual damages” languages was meant as a contrast to statutory damages, not as a form of limitation.  Universal instead argued that, by analogy to common law fraudulent misrepresentation, damages should be limited to economic harm. It also further argued that the misrepresentation must be the proximate cause of the harm, due to the “as the result of” language in the passage above.

Judge Fogel’s decision ultimately draws from arguments put forward by both sides.  He agrees with Lenz on the issue of what damages may be considered, stating that “requiring a plaintiff…to demonstrate in addition not only that she suffered damages but also that those damages were economic and substantial would vitiate the deterrent effect of the statute.” The impact of this decision may be enormous. It’s likely that most plaintiffs who might suit under this section would be just like Stephanie Lenz: individuals whose personal videos were removed. There’s not likely to be economic harm suffered by such a plaintiff, and Fogel’s decision opens the way for such a plaintiff to sue and still recover for other harm, such as the harm to their First Amendment rights. As one of Lenz’s lawyers stated, “what’s important here is that someone who’s had their speech chilled can move forward and bring a lawsuit under 512(f).”

However, Fogel’s decision did place a significant burden upon such plaintiffs when he subsequently found that such damages “must be proximately caused by the misrepresentation of the copyright owner to the service provider and the service provider’s reliance on the misrepresentation.”  He pointed out that were this not the case, plaintiffs could show they have suffered harm merely by filing a suit and thereby incurring costs and fees.

The biggest constraint this puts on plaintiffs is that Judge Fogel interpreted this proximate cause requirement (combined with the fee shifting provisions already in place in 17 U.S.C. § 505) to mean that plaintiffs cannot recover attorney’s fees from after the litigation commences, since those fees are not proximately caused by the misrepresentation. This may end up taking the teeth away from 512(f), as most plaintiffs will not want to bear the brunt of their attorney’s fees when bringing such claims, especially since without monetary harm, their recovery is likely to be relatively low.

Now What?

While it’s unclear what larger impact this decision will have, it has already raised ordinary people’s awareness about the ways in which the provisions of the DMCA could impact their lives and demonstrated first hand what you can do if you experience a takedown. Statistics on YouTube currently indicate that the video has received over a million views and over a thousand comments, which demonstrates the degree to which people have been interested in this controversy. Stephanie Lenz herself seems to have become an activist in this area. Her personal blog indicates that this case has caused her to become interested and explore other topics affecting free speech and fair use. Though Stephanie Lenz may have suffered few monetary damages, it’s easy to see from her writings that she feels the harm to her speech rights very keenly.

About the Author

Stephanie Train

Stephanie is a 2L at Columbia Law School.
  • http://www.integrityip.com Joe Page

    Wow! I can’t believe the copyright holder is trying so hard to make themselves look bad. There are so many genuine problem copiers – why don’t they place their energy where they can have some real effect on infringers? I am not saying the lady has a right to use the song – maybe yes, maybe no; but to actually have a case arise from this? What a waste of resources.

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