'Dancing Baby' YouTube copyright case goes to court

A case involving a dancing baby, Big Music, and Prince will go before a federal judge in California on Tuesday.

The lawsuit is challenging the takedown of a home video from YouTube because Universal Music claims the video infringed copyrights owned by the company.

In the video, a toddler is dancing while a song by Prince, "Let's Go Crazy," plays in the background.

The case, Lenz v. Universal, was filed in 2007 by Stephanie Lenz, who argued that the video represented a fair use of Prince's song and that Universal's takedown request was improper and an abuse of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

Lenz will be represented in court on Tuesday by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). "Parents are allowed to document and share moments of their children's lives on a forum like YouTube, and they shouldn't have to worry if those moments happen to include some background music," EFF Intellectual Property Director Corynne McSherry said in a statement.

"Content companies need to be held accountable when their heavy-handed tactics squash fair use rights," McSherry said. "We hope the judge gives Ms. Lenz the closure she deserves, and shows content owners they can't trample over users' rights."

Zealous takedown claims

Takedown notices aren't served only against individuals. Metrics released by Google in 2009 show that 57 percent of takedown notices received under the DMCA were sent by businesses targeting their competitors. What's more, 37 percent of the notices were not valid copyright claims.

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Rights holders have also abused the takedown process by automating it. For example, Microsoft acknowledged last week that over the last year its automated takedown system has requested that Google remove nearly 5 million Web pages because they link to infringing content. Among the websites targeted by Microsoft takedown notices are pages posted by the BBC, CNN, the Huffington Post, Wikipedia, and Spotify.

Earlier this year, Hotfile, an online storage site, was deluged with takedown notices generated by an automated system backed by Warner Bros. Entertainment. Many of those notices requested the takedown of content that Warner Bros. had no rights to.

Claims affect search results

Even if the takedown notice doesn't result in the removal of material from the Internet, it can still have harmful effects on a business. That's because in August Google tweaked its search algorithms so that sites that have a high number of takedown notices filed against them will automatically be placed lower in search results.

Google said at the time that the move would help users find sources of legitimate and quality content more easily.

Unsurprisingly, both the movie and music industries also praised the change. People will now be diverted from "outlaw enterprises that steal the hard work of creators across the globe," declared a spokesperson for the movie industry. A spokesperson for the recording industry added that the change would "result in improved rankings for the licensed music services that pay artists and deliver fans the music they love."

The EFF, however, wasn't enamored with Google's machinations. In particular, it was concerned about the "false positive" problem. If Google wrongfully treats a site as a rights infringer when it's not, the digital rights group maintains, lawful, relevant speech will drop in search rankings and its speakers will have little recourse to change that situation.

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