A Copyright First: Bogus Copyright Takedown Leads To Australian Court Awarding $150k Damages
from the but-is-it-really-over? dept
We're so inured to hearing about unjustified claims of copyright infringement going unpunished that's it's good to come across a case where extensive damages were awarded for the harm caused. It concerns a film that the Australian artist Richard Bell made in New York, with the help of an assistant called Tanya Steele:
Between June 2009 and September 2011, while on a fellowship in New York, Mr Bell produced and directed approximately 18 hours of raw footage for a film “The Blackfella’s Guide to New York”. He engaged Ms Steele to help him make the film, and paid her for these services.
Mr Bell made a trailer from the raw footage, which his agent posted on the Vimeo website.
Then things started to turn unpleasant:
Ms Steele, through her American lawyers, sent letters to Mr Bell and his agent claiming that she owned the copyright in the footage and demanding that the trailer be removed from the Internet. She also caused the Vimeo website to remove the trailer.
According to the official court proceedings, "threats of legal action were made in a calculated fashion by the respondent [Steele] through her New York law form [sic]" to both Bell and his agent. As a result of those threats:
Mr Bell’s agent did not display the footage on the Internet, postponed a showing of Mr Bell’s artworks, and delayed the sale of a catalogue of Mr Bell’s artworks that included a still from the trailer.
In response, Bell went to the (Australian) courts, which declared him the owner of the copyright in the film, and deemed Steele's threats "unjustifiable". Bell then asked for damages. These were granted in the latest judgment because Bell had lost the opportunity to sell some of his works, which typically cost tens of thousands of dollars, as a result of Steels' threats. The Australian judge awarded over $150,000 in damages plus another $23,000 costs against her.
As the article quoted above points out:
The decision sets an important precedent. As far as we are aware, this is the first time damages have been awarded where a third party had content removed from the Internet without legal justification. In light of this decision, if a person falsely tells a file-sharing or social media website that they own copyright in an image or movie to have it taken down, and in fact that is not the case, it could be actionable as an unjustifiable threat.
That's obviously good news in terms of deterring future unjustified claims of copyright infringment, at least in the Australian jurisdiction. But there are a couple of curious features about this case that are worth noting.
One is that Tanya Steele not only didn't turn up for the court case in Australia -- perhaps understandable, given the distance of Brisbane from New York -- but didn't even file a submission explaining her actions, so we don't really know her side of the story.
The second is that the article says: "The trailer for the video is now on YouTube". What's odd is that following that link brings up an ominous black screen with the following message:
This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by Tanya Steele.
The original problem was over a posting of the trailer to Vimeo (and to the agent's Web site), not YouTube, which is nowhere mentioned in any of the documents, so this seems to be a new takedown. Maybe the case isn't over yet...