Standing Up To Takedown Notices

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By Catherine Rampell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 19, 2007

On a chilly February day, Stephanie Lenz decided to show her family and friends what her bouncing baby boy could do. She plopped 13-month-old Holden, then learning to walk, on the floor, cranked up Prince's song "Let's Go Crazy" and whipped out the digital camera.

In the 29-second YouTube video that resulted, Holden smiles and bobs up and down to the music. According to Universal Music Publishing Group, he also helps his mom commit a federal crime: copyright infringement.

In June, Universal, which owns the rights to Prince's song, sent a notice to YouTube requesting the video be taken down but did not take action against Lenz. On the contrary, Lenz sued Universal for abusing copyright law.

"The idea that putting a little video of your kid up on YouTube can mean you have to go to court, and maybe declare bankruptcy and lose your house, is just wrong," Lenz said. "I don't like being made to feel afraid, and I don't like being bullied."

Universal did not return calls seeking comment on Lenz's case.

Companies have been pursuing copyright violations for decades, but technology -- and the proliferation of online venues like YouTube that allow self-publishing -- has created opportunities both for infringement and for ways to identify alleged violations.

With more self-publishing sites comes a boom in "takedown notices," warnings that the material is infringing a copyright and needs to be removed.

YouTube, which has been sued by many parties for hosting videos alleged to violate copyright, this week started using a filter to try to identify such content before copyright holders notice it. A group of other content holders, including NBC Universal and Microsoft, yesterday announced standards for how companies should deal with material that people post online.

But recently -- in part because of backlash among users and advocacy groups who say copyright holders are abusing the law and wrongfully taking down content -- the challenges to these copyright claims also appear to be increasing.

"These companies are trying to shoot a mouse with an elephant gun," said Gigi Sohn, director of Public Knowledge, a public-policy think tank that focuses on intellectual property. "They like to accuse their customers, the music fans and TV fans out there, of not respecting the law, but I don't think they respect the law."

Copyright holders say they are trying to legitimately protect their property and that takedown notices issued for noninfringing material are usually because of mistakes and not malevolence.

"These companies are sending out 100,000 takedown notices, so of course once in a while there's going to be a fly caught in the ointment," said Douglas Lichtman, a UCLA law professor who advises Viacom on copyright matters. "Everyone's trying to be careful, though. They don't want the PR backlash that comes when they make a mistake."


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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