Stephanie Lenz’s case will be familiar to many of you: After publishing a 29-second video on YouTube that shows her toddler dancing to the Prince song “Let’s Go Crazy,” Ms. Lenz received email from YouTube, informing her that the video was being taken down at Universal Music’s request. She filed a DMCA counter-notification claiming the video was fair use, and the video was put back up on the site. Now Ms. Lenz, represented by the EFF, is suing Universal, claiming that the company violated section 512(f) of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Section 512(f) creates liability for a copyright owner who “knowingly materially misrepresents… that material or activity is infringing.”
On Wednesday, the judge denied Universal’s motion to dismiss the suit. The judge held that “in order for a copyright owner to proceed under the DMCA with ‘a good faith belief that the 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 essence of Lenz’s claim is that when Universal sent a notice claiming her use was “not authorized by… the law,” they already knew her use was actually lawful. She cites news coverage that suggests that Universal’s executives watched the video and then, at Prince’s urging, sent a takedown notice they would not have opted to send on their own. Wednesday’s ruling gives the case a chance to proceed into discovery, where Lenz and the EFF can try to find evidence to support their theory that Universal’s lawyers recognized her use was legally authorized under fair use—but caved to Prince’s pressure and sent a spurious notice anyway.
Universal’s view is very different from Lenz’s and, apparently, from the judge’s—they claim that the sense of “not authorized by… the law” required for a DMCA takedown notice is that a use is unauthorized in the first instance, before possible fair use defenses are considered. This position is very important to the music industry’s current practice of sending automated takedown notices based on recognizing copyright works; if copyright owners were required to form any kind of belief about the fairness of a use before asking for a takedown, then this kind of fully computer-automated mass request might not be possible, since it’s hard to imagine a computer performing the four-factor weighing test that informs a fair use determination.
Seen in this light, the case has at least as much to do with the murky epistemology of algorithmic inference as it does with fair use per se. The music industry uses takedown bots to search out and flag potentially infringing uses of songs, and then in at least some instances to send automated takedown notices. If humans at Universal manually review a random sample of the bot’s output, and the statistics and sampling issues are well handled, and they find that a certain fraction of the bot’s output is infringing material, then they can make an inference. They can infer with the statistically appropriate level of confidence that the same fraction of songs in a second sample, consisting of bot-flagged songs “behind a curtain” that have not manually reviewed, are also infringing. If the fraction of material that’s infringing is high enough—e.g. 95 percent?—then one can reasonably or in good faith (at least in the layperson, everyday sense of those terms) believe that an unexamined item turned up by the bot is infringing.
The same might hold true if fair use is also considered: As long a high enough fraction of the material flagged by the bot in the first, manual human review phase turns out to be infringement-not-defensible-as-fair-use, a human can believe reasonably that a given instance flagged by the bot—still “behind the curtain” and not seen by human eyes—is probably an instance of infringement-not-defensible-as-fair-use.
The general principle here would be: If you know the bot is usually right (for some definition of “usually”), and don’t have other information about some case X on which the bot has offered a judgment, then it is reasonable to believe that the bot is right in case X—indeed, it would be unreasonable to believe otherwise, without knowing more. So it seems like there is some level of discernment, in a bot, that would suffice in order for a person to believe in good faith that any given item identified by the bot was an instance of infringement suitable for a DMCA complaint. (I don’t know what the threshold should be, who should decide, or whether or not the industry’s current bots meet it.) This view, when it leads to auto-generated takedown requests, has the strange consequence that music industry representatives are asserting that they have a “good faith belief” certain copies of certain media are infringing, even when they aren’t aware that those copies exist.
Here’s where the sidewalk ends, and I begin to wish I had formal legal training: What are the epistemic procedures required to form a “good faith belief”? How about a “reasonable belief”? This kind of question in the law surely predates computers: It was Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. who first created the reasonable man, a personage Louis Menand has memorably termed “the fictional protagonist of modern liability theory.” I don’t even know to whom this question should be addressed: Is there a single standard nationally? Does it vary circuit by circuit? Statute by statute? Has it evolved in response to computer technology? Readers, can you help?