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'Dancing Baby' Expands Fair Use Doctrine for YouTube Videos

As the means for music copying and dissemination have expanded, artists and music companies have struggled to assert their copyrights against online music piracy. 

Copyright lawyers have legitimate claims when people illegally download whole albums without paying. However, what about the case where a mom posts a YouTube video of her toddler dancing to Prince's "Let's Go Crazy?" ... Maybe just leave that one alone, lawyers. 

What's become known as the "Dancing Baby" lawsuit just turned into a victory for fair use advocates and a defeat for copyright holders.

Controversy

Universal Music Group sent YouTube a takedown notice, claiming Stephanie Lenz's video of her son dancing with Prince's song in the background violated the songwriter's copyrights under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Lenz, with help from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) sued Universal, saying that the video constituted lawful fair use of the song.

What seemed to be a small disagreement over a short video, however, turned into what could be a landmark ruling for online speech.

Musicology

Previously, the concept of fair use of a work was thought of as a defense to the charge of copyright infringement. Because it is a generally murky area of copyright law, after a lawsuit is filed, courts would make fair use determinations on a case-by-case basis.

This ruling by the Ninth Circuit shifts the way fair use is viewed. As the court said, "fair use is not just excused by the law, it is wholly authorized by the law." Therefore, use of a copyrighted work isn't automatically infringement, and copyright holders must take fair use principles into account before sending takedown notices and filing lawsuits.

Crystal Ball

How this case will impact future copyright complaints remains to be seen. For now, it appears to have raised the bar just a bit for copyright holders, making them liable for damages if they don't consider fair use before sending a takedown notification. You can read the court's ruling for yourself below.

Stephanie Lenz v. Universal Music Corp., et al.: Opinion by FindLaw