EFF sues Universal over 'fair use' of song in YouTube video

Electronic Freedom Foundation files suit against the Universal Music Publishing Group after action to remove home video featuring copyrighted music.

Josh Wolf
Josh Wolf first became interested in the power of the press after writing and distributing a screed against his high school's new dress code. Within a short time, the new dress code was abandoned, and ever since then he's been getting his hands dirty deconstructing the media every step of the way. Wolf recently became the longest-incarcerated journalist for contempt of court in U.S. history after he spent 226 days in federal prison for his refusal to cooperate. In Media sphere, Josh shares his daily insights on the developing information landscape and examines how various corporate and governmental actions effect the free press both in the United States and abroad.
Josh Wolf
2 min read

We all heard the stories about the Recording Industry Association of America lawsuits and the mostly college students who found themselves in the crosshairs several years ago.

Many people are opposed to music piracy, but far fewer actually agreed with the RIAA's heavy-handed legal approach.

Among dissenters is the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against RIAA member Universal Music Publishing Group after the company asked that a home video be removed from YouTube due to copyright infringement. The video features 18-month-old Holden Lenz dancing to Prince's "Let's Get Crazy" and runs for a total of 29 seconds. Following Universal's complaint, the video was removed by YouTube and remained offline until recently.

The EFF points out that, "Under federal copyright law, a mere allegation of copyright infringement can result in the removal of content from the Internet." This legal framework mandates that services take down material that may actually be completely lawful or protected under fair use, and this situation is the impetus for the suit.

"Copyright abuse can shut down online artists, political analysts, or--as in this case--ordinary families who simply want to share snippets of their day-to-day lives," said EFF Staff Attorney Marcia Hofmann. "Universal must stop making groundless infringement claims that trample on fair use and free speech."

The lawsuit 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.

This lawsuit is part of EFF's ongoing work to protect online free speech in the face of bogus copyright claims. EFF is working with Stanford University's Fair Use Project to develop a set of "best practices" for proper takedowns under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

There is little evidence that such overly broad copyright claims are an attempt to censor controversial matters. It seems far more likely that these companies are simply tagging everything possible without regard for fair use, but the EFF's argument that companies could silence their detractors in this manner has significant merit, and it will be interesting to see how this case resolves.