August 20, 2008 | By corynne mcsherry

Judge Rules That Content Owners Must Consider Fair Use Before Sending Takedowns

A judge's ruling today is a major victory for free speech and fair use on the Internet, and will help protect everyone who creates content for the Web. In Lenz v. Universal (aka the "dancing baby" case), Judge Jeremy Fogel held that content owners must consider fair use before sending takedown notices under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act ("DMCA").

Universal Music Corporation ("Universal") had sent a takedown notice targeting a 29-second home movie of a toddler dancing in a kitchen to a Prince song, "Let's Go Crazy," which is heard playing in the background. Because her use of the song was obviously a fair use and, therefore, non-infringing, Lenz sued Universal for misrepresentation under the DMCA. Universal moved to dismiss the case, claiming, among other things, that it had no obligation to consider whether Lenz's use was fair before sending its notice. The judge firmly rejected Universal's theory:

[A] 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.

Universal had insisted that copyright owners could not efficiently police copyright infringement if they had to consider whether a give use was fair. Not so, said the judge:

[I]n the majority of cases, a consideration of fair use prior to issuing a takedown notice will not be so complicated as to jeopardize a copyright owner’s ability to respond rapidly to potential infringements. The DMCA already requires copyright owners to make an initial review of the potentially infringing material prior to sending a takedown notice; indeed, it would be impossible to meet any of the requirements of Section 512(c) without doing so. A consideration of the applicability of the fair use doctrine simply is part of that initial review.

The court also noted that consideration of fair use is necessary to make sure that content owners do not abuse the takedown process:

A good faith consideration of whether a particular use is fair use is consistent with the purpose of the statute. Requiring owners to consider fair use will help “ensure[] that the efficiency of the Internet will continue to improve and that the variety and quality of services on the Internet will expand” without compromising “the movies, music, software and literary works that are the fruit of American creative genius.”

Given the "shoot first and ask questions later" approach some content owners take to the DMCA notice process, improper takedowns of non-infringing fair uses are all too common. We're very pleased that Judge Fogel has put content owners on notice: ignore fair use at your peril!


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