Sender of DMCA takedown notice should consider fair use

Lenz v. Universal Music Corp., No. 07-3783 (N.D. Cal. August 20, 2008). [Download the opinion]

Hat tip to Joe Gratz for breaking this story.

One of the things that a person sending a takedown notice under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) has to swear to is that he or she “has a good faith belief that use of the material in the manner complained of is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent, or the law.” 17 U.S.C. §512(c)(3)(A) (emphasis added). If the sender of the takedown notice makes a knowingly material misrepresentation as to whether the law authorizes the use of the material, the party whose content is taken down can sue under 17 U.S.C. §512(f). This serves as a backstop against DMCA takedown abuses.

Suppose that the complained-of work may be protected by fair use. If the sender is deliberately ignorant of that possibility, can that result in a misrepresentation that runs afoul of 512(f)? That question had not been answered before today, when the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California said “yes.”

The case is Lenz v. Universal Music Corp., No. 07-3783. You may have heard of this case before, as it’s the one where the mom filmed her daughter dancing to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” and uploaded that to YouTube, only to have it removed after a Universal DMCA takedown notice. Lenz sued under §512(f) and Universal moved to dismiss.

In its motion to dismiss, Universal contended that copyright owners cannot be required to evaluate the question of fair use prior to sending a takedown notice because fair use is merely an excused infringement of a copyright rather than a use authorized by the copyright owner or by law.

But the court disagreed. “[T]he fact remains that fair use is a lawful use of a copyright. Accordingly, in order for a copyright owner to proceed under the DMCA with ‘a good faith belief that use of the material in the manner complained of is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent, or the law,’ the owner must evaluate whether the material makes fair use of the copyright.” The court went on to say that “[a]n allegation that a copyright owner acted in bad faith by issuing a takedown notice without proper consideration of the fair use doctrine thus is sufficient to state a misrepresentation claim pursuant to Section 512(f) of the DMCA.”

Because Lenz’s complaint contained allegations of this nature, it was detailed enough to pass Twombly muster [Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, --- U.S. ----, 127 S. Ct. 1955, 1964-65 (2007)], and the case moves forward.

The practical effect of this decision is that one sending a DMCA takedown notice without considering whether the person who posted the content is making a fair use, does so at his or her peril. Let’s be clear — the decision does not mean that sending a takedown notice in a situation where it turns out to be a fair use will automatically result in a finding of §512(f) misrepresentation. But it does add another implicit item on the checklist of the takedown notice sender.