The many angles of Fair Use in copyright

A recent article in the New York Times draws into focus the many differing interpretations and perspectives surrounding copyright law’s doctrine of Fair Use.

The article describes how three separate parties, a young musician, Google’s YouTube service and the Warner Music Group, became entangled over the use of the Christmas classic “Winter Wonderland”

The musician, Juliet Weybret, uploaded a video to YouTube that showed her performing the song. A few weeks later she was informed by YouTube that the video was being taken down because of objections by the Warner Music Group.  Warner Music Group owns the copyright for Winter Wonderland and currently has no licensing agreement in place with Google.

Ms Weybret rightly felt that she was using the song in a noncommercial way and therefore was within the tenets of fair use. She was not gaining financially in any way by performing the song. It was basically a home video that she put on YouTube. The performance is not a money making venture, it doesn’t compete or impede Warner Music Group from earning income from the song. If you look at the performance itself, it is certainly fair use and does not infringe on the copyright in any way. 

Warner Music Group, no doubt, feels the same way about the performance.  However, when that performance is uploaded to YouTube and becomes part of the content of a multi-million dollar enterprise, then the notion of the performance (the video) as fair use is challenged. In Warner’s view, the video now contributes to the income YouTube makes from showing videos on the web.  The use of the video by Google/YouTube is therefore not fair use.  

Use of third party copyrights without permission has dogged YouTube since it became a major Internet presence.  The company initially relied on Fair Use as well as the safe harbor provision of the DMCA as an argument for not removing video content.  That decision created a substantial amount of push-back from copyright holders and a slew of lawsuits followed. Google now has a very high-tech filtering system that will automatically remove videos that use unlicensed content from YouTube.  

From the NY Times article…

Referring to Ms. Weybret, Ben Sheffner, a copyright lawyer in Los Angeles who has worked on antipiracy at the 20th Century Fox movie studio, said, “From her persepctive it’s completely noncommercial because she’s not making a dime. But from another perspective it’s entirely commercial because Google is trying to make money off it”

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