YouTube provides creators the great ability to express themselves on an online forum. But what happens when what the creators produce constitutes copyright infringement? YouTube tends to be a breeding ground for copyright infringement claims. In fact, Google, the company which owns YouTube, has recently published its own “Transparency Report,” which shows that from September 2015 through September 2016, 342,000 websites were affected by “requests to remove content that may infringe copyright,” with nearly 846 million URLs being removed. This is an issue which has only gotten worse with the growth of the internet.
In January of 2013, requests to remove or delist content due to alleged copyright infringement hovered around 3 million; the number has increased to roughly 20 million requests in today.
In Paramount Pictures Corp. v. Axanar Productions Inc. (C. D. Cal. No. 15-cv-09938), a case that recently settled, CBS Corp. and Paramount Pictures Corp. brought a copyright infringement lawsuit against a “die-hard Star Trek fan” who made professional 20-minute videos. The complaint alleged that the defendant’s videos were “substantially similar” to videos from the Star Trek movie series. The complaint further alleged that the defendant had used both a setting and characters which were substantially similar to Star Trek’s copyrighted works.
The case had been set for trial to begin at the end of January, but the two parties were able to come to a settlement agreement just days before the start of the trial.
The defendant, Mr. Alec Peters, tried to argue that his use constituted fair use. However, District Court Judge, Judge R. Gary Klausner, ultimately determined that the defendant had “mined the copyrighted works down to ‘excruciating detail,’” and that the work did not constitute fair use.
As noted by Bloomberg Reporter, Edvard Pettersson, this case gained notoriety as it was one of the few instances where the movie production companies were willing to go after one of the fans for creating a derivative work. According to what has been disclosed of the settlement agreement, Peters will be allowed to leave his video up on YouTube, but must take off ads. This essentially ensures that Peters will not be able to profit off of these videos, as most of a YouTuber’s money comes from viewership via ad-revenue.
This case may seem to be a big hit on fan works that are posted to YouTube, but a more in-depth analysis of the specifics of this particular case show this is not true. Mr. Peters “ripped off the plot, characters, costumes and spaceship design from their 50-year-old science fiction franchise,” as well as raising over $600,000 through a Kickstarter campaign with the intent of making “a feature-quality Star Trek film . . . on a small budget.”
As Judge Klausner noted, the fact that the copyright works were mined down to “excruciating detail” ultimately led to the defendant’s downfall. There was not nearly enough parody or criticism for Mr. Peters’ use to qualify as fair use under the traditional fair use doctrine. So long as a fan does not profit off of a movie’s copyrighted work, or ensures that their product will fall under a category of fair use, fanatics should still be able to make and disseminate their work at their discretion.