Cindy Garcia v. Google, Inc. is a case that brought forward many questions about the definition of a copyright, and for a brief moment tried to change that definition.
The plaintiff in this case was hired to be an actress in a film entitled “Desert Warrior,” but instead had her performance used and her lines dubbed over for a different film called “Innocence of Muslims.” The lines that plaintiff appeared to be saying were slurs against the Islamic prophet Mohammed, and there was an immediate backlash against Garcia and the film. Garcia sought an injunction against Google and its subsidiary YouTube to have the film and her performance removed from those online locations. The district court for the Central District of California that first heard the case denied the injunction, however the decision was appealed up to the Ninth Circuit where the decision was reversed and the injunction granted. By doing so the court went against all previous copyright precedent and stated that Garcia, an actress, had ownership over her performance and that her performance alone qualified as a copyrightable work. This conclusion not only allowed for an actress to pull an entire work from major online sites, but also caused a rift in the intellectual property world.
Under 17 U.S.C. § 201 initial copyright ownership vests in the author of the work. Additionally, if someone contributes to the work as a work made for hire, then the copyright invests in the employer who hired that contributor. Contributors have attempted to claim copyright ownership over entire works before and failed. An example of this, and a case that was used for argument in the Garcia case is Aalmuhammed v. Lee, where Aalmuhammed contributed valuable script changes and significant content to the film Malcolm X and still was denied joint authorship and copyright ownership. Therefore it’s easy to see why allowing an actor such as Garcia, whose performance was only in the film for a few seconds, caused such an uproar when she was given the ability to remove the film from online intermediaries.
Allowing an actor from a film to claim copyright ownership over her contribution can create problems, especially if this unprecedented ownership allows for any contributor of a work to have it removed from online sources. Companies like Google that host third party content would then have to be wary when they put up works that have more than one contributor attached if it only takes one to have it removed without question. Every copyrighted work would go from having a single owner over the whole to having an owner for each respective portion. The Ninth Circuit recognized the large impact this could have and decided to have an en banc review of the case, where the full panel of justices would rehear the case and make a final decision.
This final decision was released on May 18, 2015 and ultimately sided with the defendant, Google, Inc. This means the first decision will be ignored, and precedent will be followed. The majority opinion stated that the district court did not abuse its discretion in originally denying Garcia’s injunction, and that she failed to show clear “irreparable harm to her interests as an author.” One judge concurred in the opinion and stated that the issue of copyright law should have never been reached by the court due to Garcia’s “failure to establish a likelihood of irreparable harm.” And one judge dissented from the opinion by claiming that “Garcia’s dramatic performance met all of the requirements for copyright protection…her claim was likely to succeed and that she had made an ample showing of irreparable harm.”
This case had a large audience eagerly awaiting its decision due to the drastic impact it could have on the intellectual property world. However, with the United States Copyright Office denying Garcia’s claim for copyright ownership over her performance, and with many amicus briefs filed on behalf of the defendants, it seems the court has listened to the numerous concerns about changing the landscape of copyright, and its final decision has laid them to rest.