On February 7, 2007, a young Pennsylvania woman named Stephanie Lenz uploaded to YouTube a video of her two adorable children dancing to the Prince song “Let’s Go Crazy.” She titled the 29-second long video “Let’s Get Crazy #1,” and then (probably) went about the rest of her day. Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the country, a man named Sean Johnson was spending his day, as he spent most of his days (maybe), trolling YouTube upon order of his bosses, the legal department of Universal Music Group. The UMG honchos wanted Sean to track down videos for which Universal might conceivably claim a copyright violation – any unauthorized use of a song owned by Universal or one of their artists. “Find ‘em, Sean,” they said. “Find ‘em so we can make ‘em pay.”

Suddenly, Sean’s eyes lit up (possibly). “Oh my god,” he might have exclaimed, as the energetic beats of “Let’s Go Crazy” drifted from his speakers, and the image of two little kids dancing filled his field of vision. “This is…the big one.”

(While the names and actions are real, all dialogue attributed to Mr. Johnson or his bosses is purely conjectural.)

This collision between two copyright behemoths – one, a doting mom fully ignorant of American copyright law, the other a Universal up-and-comer saddled with a task some might call unsavory – produced its first sparks last week, as the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Sean and his bosses must prove, at trial, that they actually believed Stephanie to have been in violation of copyright law when she uploaded the baby video.

Universal (Sean?) sent YouTube one of the notorious “take down notices” that have become familiar in intellectual property circles. Stephanie countered by filing an appropriately titled counter-notice with YouTube claiming that she and the video violated no intellectual property laws. Universal counter-countered on a technicality. And Stephanie decided to go ahead and sue Universal.

The case, which was sought out and defended by the Electronic Freedom Foundation, has created significant ripples in the world of copyright law. Stephanie sued Universal under a section of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (a problematic law we’ve discussed on this blog before) mandating that anyone who files a takedown notice must believe in good faith that there actually is a copyright violation afoot. It’s an important section of a somewhat flawed law, because it theoretically stops big companies like Universal from machine-gunning takedown notices at every video and music website targeting any posted file that contains even a slight reference to a copyrighted work (as happened with Adam Sandler’s ridiculous Pixels movie DMCA slaughter, discussed in the previous link).

See, not every use of a copyrighted work is illegal. There is a well-established legal doctrine of “fair use,” and Stephanie claimed that her use of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” met this standard. The primary purpose of her video was not to provide YouTubers with a way to listen to Prince. It was a slice of life, to show her kids cutely dancing to a song. Now, Stephanie and Universal will be going to trial, and Universal will have to show that it had a legitimate “good faith belief” that Stephanie was violating copyright law. Maybe Sean will testify!

As we’ve said before, the DMCA is by alternate measures both necessary and troubling. Lawsuits like Stephanie’s help clarify exactly what is and is not a legitimate and protected use of a copyrighted piece of art. Check back on the Fried Firm blog for more on this case.