YouTube Copyright Bots Finally Tick Off Someone Who Understands Copyright Law

Harvard law professor and Creative Commons co-founder Lawrence Lessig knows a thing or two about copyright law. So when a record company demanded that he remove a video from YouTube that featured one of their artists’ songs, he not only fought back to keep the clip online, but has now sued that record company in the hopes of getting it, and others, to stop using auto-scanning technology to take advantage of consumers who may not know their rights.

This all began back in 2010, when Lessig gave a keynote address at a Creative Commons conference in South Korea. During the 49-minute lecture (which you can watch above), he showed how people from around the world had made their own versions of a music video for “Lisztomania,” a song by French musicians Phoenix.

Given that Section 107 of the Copyright Act permits “fair use” of copyrighted materials “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research,” Lessig shouldn’t have been concerned that the video of his lecture contained copyrighted material, as it was all being shown in the spirit of the fair use doctrine.

“If I’m using it for purposes of critique, then I can use if even if I don’t have permission of the original copyright owner,” he explains to NPR.

Things went fine until June 2013. Within a short period of time, YouTube received takedown notices related to this lecture video from both Viacom and Liberation Music, the Australian record company that holds the copyright to the Phoenix song. However, Lessig says he only received a notice from YouTube regarding the Viacom claim, which he successfully disputed.

When the video reappeared following his appeal of the Viacom copyright claim (which we assume involves a clip from The Daily Show that was used in the lecture), that’s when he received the notice that Liberation was also trying to block access to the lecture video. An e-mail from YouTube to Lessig warned him that repeated incidents of copyright infringement could lead to the deletion of his YouTube account and all videos uploaded to the account.

He appealed his case to YouTube and Liberation swiftly replied on July 8 that it would sue him in a U.S. District Court if he did not retract his dispute of their infringement claim within 72 hours.

Lessig retracted his claim on July 10, but filed suit [PDF] in a U.S. District Court in Massachusetts in late August.

“Defendant’s conduct has forced Professor Lessig to choose between sharing his work and views publicly and risking legal liability,” reads the complaint, which is asking for the court to declare that his use of the song in his video falls is considered fair use.

He also accuses Liberation of knowing — or at least that it, as an international record company, should have known — that it was acting in bad faith when it sent the takedown notice to YouTube. Lessig seeks unspecified damages from the company, including legal fees.

Ultimately though, the goal is to set a precedent in order to make record companies and other copyright holders rethink the shoot-first-ask-questions-later mindset behind these automated scanning and takedown systems.

What we’ve got is this computerized system threatening people about content that’s on the Web, much of it legally on the Web,” Lessig tells NPR.