Larry Lessig Threatened With Copyright Infringement Over Clear Fair Use; Decides To Fight Back
from the bad-ideas:-threatening-larry-lessig-with-a-copyright-infringement-lawsuit dept
If you read Techdirt, you’re almost certainly familiar with Larry Lessig, the law professor at Harvard who (among many other things) has been an avid advocate for copyright reform and campaign finance reform, an author of many books about copyright and creativity, a well-known public speaker whose presentations are stunningly compelling, entertaining and informative, and the founder of some important organizations including Creative Commons. Of course, as an expert on copyright and creativity, and someone who’s actually been involved in some of the key copyright legal fights over the past decade (tragically, on the losing side), you might think that a record label would think twice before issuing a clearly bogus threat to sue him over copyright infringement. Well, apparently Liberation Music was either unaware of Lessig’s reputation and knowledge, or just didn’t care.
Apparently, back in 2010, Lessig gave one of his many wonderful public talks, this one called “Open,” at a Creative Commons event in South Korea. While that happened a few years ago, Lessig just put video of that talk online a few months ago. In that video, which is now down (for reasons explained below), there are a few brief clips of the Phoenix song Lisztomania, which was quite popular a few years ago. When the clip was posted, it appears that YouTube’s ContentID noted two possible claims: one from Viacom and one from Liberation Music, though, oddly, Lessig was only informed about the Viacom one. Lessig disputed the Viacom block, but as YouTube was about to restore the video, Liberation Music took it one step further, and filed a full DMCA claim, demanding the video be taken down and kept offline (while many people confuse them, the ContentID match is not the same thing as a DMCA claim — without getting into the details, the DMCA claim is a bit more serious).
In response, Lessig did exactly what the law allows, and filed a DMCA counter-notice, claiming that the work did not infringe. In response, Liberation emailed Lessig directly telling him that it would be filing a copyright infringement lawsuit against him in 72 hours if he did not “retract” his counter-notice. To avoid having an immediate lawsuit on his hands, Lessig retracted the notice, but since then has teamed up with the EFF to file for declaratory judgment that the video does not infringe and (more importantly) to seek DMCA 512(f) damages against Liberation for filing a totally bogus DMCA takedown notice.
There are a few things worth digging into here. For example, this is not the first time that Lessig has had videos removed from YouTube on highly questionable copyright claims. In fact, we’ve written about it happening twice before. However, I’m pretty sure that, in both cases, after Lessig countered the claims, the videos were restored. In both cases, it really looked like part of an automatic takedown, where the companies later realized there was nothing worth pursuing. What’s different (and stunning) here is that Liberation decided to press forward with the obviously bogus claim, file the DMCA notice and threaten to sue if Lessig didn’t drop his counternotice.
Next, in terms of the content of the video itself, while the YouTube video is gone because of the DMCA takedown, I’m pretty sure there’s another copy here. The Lisztomania clips come in around the 37:50 mark. I wasn’t able to fast forward to it, but Lessig has used it in other presentations as well. For example, you can see it in a TEDx presentation that Lessig did a few months earlier, with the key section of that video happening at 4:40 in that video. And what he’s showing, actually, is not something that Lessig himself put together, but rather clips from a video that Julian Sanchez had put together — a video we’ve written about a few times.
That’s because it’s a truly fantastic video that Sanchez put together in February of 2010, highlighting how copying was a key part of culture, using a really compelling example: First, there was a mashup video uploaded to YouTube by a user called “avoidant consumer,” which mashed up the song Lisztomania by the band Phoenix, with a bunch of (mostly dance) scenes from a variety of John Hughes movies, leading with the classic Breakfast Club. The video is pretty good in a variety of ways. The music is catchy, the film scenes are classic (especially for people who grew up in the 80s), and (most importantly), the video and the music just fit together. I remember that video getting passed around like crazy. The whole thing became a meme.
Part of that meme, as highlighted by Sanchez, was that people of certain “tribes,” who really liked that video then created their own versions, starting with a crew of hipsters in Brooklyn, followed quickly by some hipsters in San Francisco, and later by people all over the world. Those later videos no longer used the original John Hughes clips, but rather recreated the same clips within their own environments in a very fun way. Sanchez spoke about this form of culture and community and how the nature of this remix helped to build that community, and how our copyright policy rarely reflects that aspect.
Of course, late last year, Sanchez discovered that his own video had been removed by a copyright claim by Kobalt Music and Sony Music. He appealed, and it was rejected… but after the story got some attention, the clip was put back. If I remember correctly, the video was taken down yet again just a few months ago, but was put back soon after.
Meanwhile, soon after Sanchez put out the video, Lessig used Sanchez’s video, again to highlight the power of remix and remix culture. In the South Korea presentation, Lessig is no longer using the same Sanchez video, and has actually expanded upon what Sanchez started, by including a variety of other cities the meme spread to. However, in almost every way, these are all clearly fair use. I’m assuming the Viacom ContentID match that Lessig first received was because of the use of some of the video clips in Lessig’s presentation, including (perhaps) one of the John Hughes clips that very briefly show up (the video also includes a Daily Show clip, which Viacom owns — so it could be about that). The audio claim by Liberation, however, is about the Phoenix audio. Given that, it would be almost impossible to see this as infringing.
While I may be predisposed towards seeing fair use more readily than some others, I’d be curious if any copyright maximalist can come up with a credible argument for how this isn’t fair use. It involved some very brief clips used to illustrate a concept, including commentary from Lessig (talking over the clips). It wasn’t for any commercial purpose, but for education. There is no way that it harmed the market for the Lisztomania song. If anything, it potentially increased interest in the song. I can’t see how Liberation Music has any case at all. At all.
Of course, the really interesting part of this might not be the declaratory judgment claim for non-infringement (where the fair use stuff will play out), but rather the second claim — for attorneys fees, costs and damages under 512(f). As we’ve discussed, unfortunately, it’s been almost impossible to win a 512(f) claim over a bogus DMCA takedown. The entertainment industry has fought hard to make sure that sending totally bogus DMCA notices that censor content are basically unpunishable, unless they can show a willful and intentional decision to ignore fair use and censor the content. While it’s not a slam dunk, it certainly appears that Lessig has a much stronger 512(f) argument here than other cases, because this isn’t a one-time situation, but Liberation doubled down even after being told that Lessig believed the video was fair use. On top of that, by filing the lawsuit himself, and seeking the declaratory judgment, instead of being sued first, it means that Liberation can’t just dismiss the lawsuit (they’re now the defendant, not the plaintiff).
Given that it’s Lessig, and with the involvement of the EFF, this is obviously going to be a case worth watching, but given the full details of the case, it may be a key one in establishing when 512(f) can be used to push back against bogus DMCA takedowns.