How the “Dancing Baby” Case Went Crazy

Last week, both the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Universal Music Group filed petitions with the United States Supreme Court in regard to what is commonly known as the “Dancing Baby” case.  The “baby” in question is about 11 years old now, and for those who might not know how a mundane home video became the focus of a multi-year, federal litigation now begging the attention of the Supreme Court, let’s review …

In February of 2007, Holden Lenz of Pennsylvania was just 18-months-old when his mother Stephanie video taped him dancing to the Prince song “Let’s Go Crazy” and then posted the video on YouTube—a platform that was just six months older than Holden. Because Prince was especially guarded about all uses of his music—and was justifiably critical of YouTube in particular—the Lenz video was one of several targets added to a list of DMCA takedown notices to be filed by Universal Music Group on the artist’s behalf. The “Dancing Baby” video was removed on June 5, 2007, and according to an ABC News story published in October of that year, Lenz stated that she was initially “frightened” about having her video removed from YouTube, concerned that UMG might file suit against her, and then the fear of said litigation made her “angry.”

So between the Summer and Fall of 2007, the public version of this story had already begun to stray from the relevant facts in the case. For starters, Ms. Lenz, on her own, had immediately sent an incorrectly filled-out DMCA counter notice on June 7 seeking to restore her video. But if she were truly frighted about a lawsuit by UMG, that would have been the moment for her to proceed with caution because a DMCA counter notice can, in some cases, trigger legal action by a rightsholder. Subsequently, at the advice of an attorney friend, Lenz contacted the Electronic Frontier Foundation to better understand her options, believing at the time that UMG might have infringed her First Amendment right of free speech.

PR by Litigation

Keeping in mind that nearly ten years ago, when this adventure began, it was easier for organizations like EFF to promote the message that DMCA takedown was widely abused and, therefore, chronically chilling speech. They still promote this message, of course, but in recent years, both research data and anecdotal evidence from numerous rightsholders indicate that takedown abuse is the exception while rampant infringement without recourse under DMCA is the rule.

On June 27, 2007, the EFF sent a correctly filed counter notice on Lenz’s behalf. YouTube restored the “Dancing Baby” video by mid July, and the EFF then filed its initial complaint against UMG on July 24, 2007. From there, both the public story and the court records suggest that Stephanie Lenz became, as Stephen Carlisle of Nova Southeastern University puts it, the “nominal plaintiff” who provided an ideal opportunity for the EFF to embark on an odyssey of PR by litigation—a lawsuit looking for an injury. After all, the video itself, as anyone can see, could not be more harmless; it has an actual baby in it!

In part, what we know about the motives and strategies driving this case is due to Ms. Lenz’s own carelessness as plaintiff when she revealed enough information, via emails and social media, that in 2010, she lost her attorney/client privilege to specific portions of her communications with the EFF. The casual communications cited in the record suggest that the EFF was determined to “get” UMG for something—Lenz uses the expression “salivating over getting their teeth into UMG”—even if they had to keep changing strategies to figure out what exactly UMG had done wrong.

Shifting Rationales

Technically, the Lenz case is pretty boring. A mom had a home movie taken down from YouTube and then that home movie was restored to the platform via the DMCA counter notice procedure, which is exactly the process Congress envisioned when it wrote the statutes. Had there been no expectation of occasional error or flaw on the part of rightsholders, there would not be a statutory counter notice “put back” procedure in the first place. The fact that the Lenz video was offline for a period of six weeks was due neither to a particular flaw in the DMCA nor to any action taken by UMG.

Moreover, the extent to which Ms. Lenz felt “injured” by the removal is unclear since in one of her emails, she stated, “I don’t care if YouTube doesn’t want to host it. Not like I’m paying them.”  This was reported by CNET in a February 2011 article in which EFF attorney Corynne McSherry is cited promoting the message that copyright owners are frequently “careless in sending notices” and, therefore, “interfering with free speech.”

But although Lenz stated that her initial belief was that UMG had infringed her First Amendment rights—and this story has often been referred to in the press and on social media as a free speech issue—the fact is that even the EFF would eventually concede that the temporary removal of the video did not implicate the First Amendment. This is because neither UMG nor YouTube is a state actor, and because the content of the video did not contain political speech, criticism, parody, or newsworthy content of any kind.

According to email communications made by Lenz, it appears the EFF considered a few avenues to pursue litigation, including a California State breach of contract complaint, which suggests that Lenz’s story did not immediately present itself as a constitutional or DMCA case in EFF’s mind. In fact, the initial complaint filed in July of 2007 was for “tortious interference,” which was dismissed.

Additionally, in a June 14, 2007 email to her mother (10 days before the first complaint was filed), Lenz states that EFF’s pro bono “fees” would be covered by “the settlement.” This may just be a layman misspeaking because an expectation of a settlement would be a very odd strategy for a rights advocacy organization that is supposedly taking a case on principle. After all, a settlement by the litigants generally means the court does not rule on whatever principle is being argued.

The EFF amended its complaint to argue that UMG had violated §512(f) of the DMCA, which states that a plaintiff may seek damages if a takedown notice filer “knowingly and materially misrepresents that the material or activity is infringing.” And that is how Lenz v UMG became a fair use case. A plaintiff does not have to have suffered financial loss in order to prove that an injury has been caused, but absent an abridgment of Lenz’s First Amendment rights, the EFF’s argument now rests solely on the sheer wrongness that the video was removed at all—that it was, in their words, “censored for six weeks.”

As indicated above, given that Ms. Lenz chose, in error, to investigate the First Amendment implications, and that the EFF chose to take the time to transform this minor event into a major case—and in light of the fact that the OSP (YouTube) is responsible for restoring files at its discretion—the six-week interval cannot be considered the responsibility of the defendant. In general, whatever factors result in a file being restored, either within hours, days, or weeks, are not in the control of the original takedown notice-sender; and as the UMG petition states, the Lenz video was ultimately restored via the counter notice procedure. In other words, Lenz’s and EFF’s time spent exploring both tort and constitutional violations—both of which fail—is neither UMG’s fault nor its responsibility to pay for.

Lenz Becomes a Fair Use Case

So, the only way for the EFF to argue that UMG had “knowingly misrepresented” that the “Dancing Baby” video was infringing was to prove via testimony that the company had not “instructed its employee to consider fair use” before filing the takedown notice. And that’s where we are today. In September 2015, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that a rights holder must “consider fair use” before sending a takedown notice but stopped well short of agreeing with EFF’s assertion that such a consideration must be made based on an “objective” standard.

The EFF has tried to argue—indeed it can only argue—that a failure to “objectively consider fair use” is tantamount to “knowingly and materially misrepresenting that the material or activity is infringing.” As an amusing side note, in an early email to a friend (June 12, 2007), Lenz stated, “Mine’s not a fair use case at all.” Granted, she cannot be expected to know the law per se, but in context to the other comments and court records, this early email does seem to support the view that this entire case has been a fishing expedition—a lawsuit looking for an injury.

As argued in the UMG petition, a “subjective” standard with regard to all considerations is the reasonable and correct interpretation of the DMCA statute, which requires a takedown notice-sender to have a “good faith belief” that a use is infringing. The plain meaning of “good faith belief” is clearly subjective; and fair use doctrine is the most subjective aspect of copyright law—a multi-faceted assessment for which the precedent caselaw provides myriad, conflicting and narrow outcomes.

Hypocrisy Undermines the Intent of DMCA 

So, even if the most experienced copyright attorney in the country were instructed to make an “objective” fair use assessment, she might ask how exactly this would be achieved. While it’s true that attorneys can make very solid fair use assessments—especially where precedent provides guidance—an “objective” standard applied to DMCA takedown notices would only further disenfranchise the independent rights holder who is no more an expert than Ms. Lenz was. This implies the need for counsel which contradicts the extra-judicial purpose of DMCA.

The truly galling hypocrisy here is that the indie rights holder would be expected to know with certainty when a use is fair while users remain free to infringe with impunity, and large OSPs are free to monetize those infringements on the basis that they “cannot know” what’s infringing or what isn’t. For the small rights holder DMCA is already toothless, but EFF would like to make it voiceless as well.

In Lenz, absent a ruling by the Supreme Court that fair use can be considered “objectively,” the foundation that UMG was ever in violation under §512(f)—that it “knowingly and materially misrepresented” that the “Dancing Baby” video was infringing—should fail. Consequently, the argument that any non-pecuniary injury was caused should also fail. Perhaps, the EFF will succeed in getting the $1,275 in pro bono “fees” Lenz theoretically owes the EFF for filing the counter notice in 2007, which would make this case landmark indeed—getting the Supreme Court to adjudicate a small claim.

Finally, it’s worth noting that in the same October 2007 ABC News story cited above, Gigi Sohn, then head of Public Knowledge, opined, “I think the large copyright holders believe that if they do not police every single use of their copyrighted work — no matter how benign — that somehow that will open the floodgates to massive piracy.”

Whether this observation was acutely naive or just cutely dismissive, the fact remains that over the next several years after Sohn said this, YouTube would go on to earn fortunes by hosting diluvian proportions of infringement by its users. In light of the immeasurable losses to working authors, who have almost no power under the DMCA to protect their rights, the EFF should frankly be ashamed of themselves for spending nearly a decade in federal courts fighting to protect absolutely nothing.

David Newhoff
David is an author, communications professional, and copyright advocate. After more than 20 years providing creative services and consulting in corporate communications, he shifted his attention to law and policy, beginning with advocacy of copyright and the value of creative professionals to America’s economy, core principles, and culture.

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