Yesterday, the Ninth Circuit ruled copyright owners must consider the fair use doctrine before sending a takedown notice under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in Lenz v. Universal Music Group. Read the case here: Lenz v. UMG – 9th Circuit

The case centered on this video.

As a father of two kids, the scene is very familiar. After the innocuous video was posted, Universal Music Group, the holder of the rights to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” sent a takedown notice under the DMCA.

The DMCA is a powerful weapon, but this is the first time a court has warned that copyright holders need to use it with some care. Generally, the DMCA works like this: a copyright owner sends a takedown notice to YouTube or wherever the infringing material is being hosted or displayed. To avoid any liability for the infringement, sites like YouTube immediately take it down and send a notice to the person who originally posted it. That person can challenge the takedown notice by going to court which is what happened in this case where the Electronic Frontier Foundation helped the mother.

The mother won at trial and recovered her attorneys’ fees under a rarely enforced section 512(f) process that allows for counter-challenges to prevail if the takedown was done in bad faith.

According to the Ninth Circuit, before sending the notice, a copyright holder is supposed to consider whether the allegedly infringing material is a fair use and only send a takedown if there is a good faith conclusion that the targeted upload is not a protected fair use of the copyrighted work.

While that sounds good, fair use is not easy for laypeople to understand because judges and lawyers have a hard time with it. Fair use is a factually-specific inquiry and there is no bright line test. Courts consider these four factors:

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

There are a lot of close calls when it comes to fair use – the “dancing baby” was not one of them. I certainly would not re-play that racket to avoid having to pay to download “Let’s Go Crazy.”

The court recognized, on the other hand, that with rampant and easy infringement on the internet, a rights holder does not have to do an exhaustive fair use analysis, as long as there is some.  The court wrote it was “mindful of pressing crush of voluminous infringing content that copyright holders face in a digital age” and that the analysis “need not be searching or intensive.”

Application Today

There is little doubt that the DMCA is subject to abuse. For example, disgruntled politicians use it to remove content that is otherwise clearly a fair use. Ahsley Madison used it to remove the posting of its data online. With this new case, people may think twice before quickly sending the takedown notice.