"And I would've gotten away with it too, if it wasn't for you dancing kids." – Prince, who was not actually directly involved with this lawsuit but let's demonize him anyway.
In 2007, Stephanie Lenz uploaded a video to YouTube of her young children dancing to Prince's "Let's Go Crazy." It's about 30 seconds long, and let's be honest: it's cute, but the only reason it's appearing on this blog is because it now has long-lasting legal importance.
Unbeknownst to her, Universal Music Group had assigned a staffer the full-time job of protecting the online copyright claims of the artist currently known as the music industry's most inexplicable homophobe, Prince. This staffer would send YouTube takedown notices invoking the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) for any clip using more than 1 second of a copyrighted song that wasn't drowned out by background noise. Standard practice.
Because of the way copyright law worked up until this week (heavily in favor of the copyright holder, due to scare campaigns about how hacker kidz were going to ruin nice honest businesses like the record industry), all Universal ever had to do was send YouTube an email saying "this video is in violation," and it would get taken down. Lenz did get her video re-uploaded six weeks later, following an appeal to YouTube, but she felt the burden of proof should have been on Universal to say why her home video of her kids should be taken down, rather than on her to prove to YouTube that she wasn't stealing from Prince.
So, Lenz and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (think of them as the ACLU for the Internet) sued Universal. Much to the surprise of music companies (and film and TV companies), who have been greatly enjoying the power to kill videos with a single email for the past 17 years, the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled this week in her favor, saying copyright holders must first take Fair Use into account before issuing a takedown notice.
This is huge. "Fair Use" is a concept that protects people who want to use copyrighted material for satire, criticism, journalism, education, or purely private creations that have no impact on the commercial market. Lenz's video falls into that last category, but this ruling is great news for home video enthusiasts and everyone who falls into that other categories.
Instead of just spraying takedown notices everywhere and letting the truly determined creators out there fight for the right to exist, now record companies (and others) have to be able to demonstrate that they actually thought about what the video was (in this case, not a video about Prince, but a video about a toddler dancing to what happens to be Prince) and decided it was a blatant violation of copyright. This means you can't just hire a staffer to bully anyone who accidentally captured more than one second of music on an open microphone.
This means I can use any music I want in my new short film. What? That's exactly what it doesn't mean? Stealing music is still stealing music if it's deliberate? What kind of freedom is this if it doesn't include the freedom to crime?