New litigation regarding an image of an NFL star may threaten use of embedded images and videos by amateurs on the web

There is some new litigation which appears to threaten a sacrosanct principle in the user-generated content world on the Internet:  that generally, embeds of copyrighted videos or photos do not create secondary liability for the web publisher doing the embed, because an embed is essentially just a hyperlink – that is, the legal equivalent to a footnote on a college term paper.

However, recently Justin Goldman, backed by Getty Images, has sued several prominent news websites (Breitbart, Time, and the Boston Globe) for hyperlinking through embed code to an image of New England Patriots pro football quarterback Tom Brady. It’s true that these are substantial news companies, not individual uses (so this is not like “Righthaven”).  Kit Walsh and Karen Gullo ran a legal analysis in Electronic Frontier Foundation Oct. 24, 2017, “What if you had to worry about a lawsuit every time you linked to an image online?”  The article links to EFF’s own amicus brief through a Scribd PDF.  The litigation is filed in the Southern District of New York.

This whole issue had started back in 2000, with some companies trying to stop other sites from deep-linking into them, denying them ad revenue.  Courts quickly established the “English teacher rule” based on the footnote and bibliography analogy. But there was some more litigation, particularly over embeds, around 2006 or 2007.   One of the leading cases was Perfect 10 v. Google (settled in the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco).

The amicus brief gets into some ancillary issues.  One could be contributory infringement. Possibly, a website that embeds material it knows is infringing and, behind the scenes, encourages the original infringement, shares the liability.  One would wonder if the plaintiffs are attacking a culture of amateur propagation of infringing material, but then again the defendants are not amateur users. It’s worth noting that in a different area, defamation, there have been a few cases of successful litigation against websites that deliberately linked to defamatory material.

As a practical matter, one could wonder if this case could create problems for YouTube embedding. Normally, when YouTube gets a complaint, under DMCA Safe Harbor it deletes the offending video and all embeds to it simply stop working and give a gray subscreen, but the secondary bloggers are not pursued.  I try to embed only videos that “look” legitimate (like I don’t embed  a free full movie unless I believe the distributor authorized it).  Some publishers, like CNN, tend to attract a lot of pirated videos of their content that quickly disappear from YouTube but don’t put up timely previews or trailers for their own shows on time.  Most motion picture distributors put up their own trailers under their own brands, and these are OK.

The amicus brief notes that liability for using an embedded video for public display like on a Jumbotron in a sports bar might exist under other laws.  The brief also questions why the parties who hosted the actual copyright infringing image were not named as defendants.

The brief also notes that embedding images doesn’t normally create a right of publicity claim for the subject.

As an ancillary matter, it’s worth noting that typically the photographer to takes an image usually owns the copyright, not the subject, unless there is an agreement beforehand.   That’s covered here by “Photoattorney”.  But in some countries the law is different, and it can even be illegal to take someone’s photo without permission in some countries, even France.

If someone takes a photo of a copyrighted image and uploads it into a blog, that could lead to liability (because the blogger stored another copy of the image).  In practice, there are many situations where the blogger knows that the image is in public domain or that the original owner has no real interest in copyright claims, but one should be careful with this.  Likewise, bloggers should be careful about copying actual digital images.  Wikipedia allows this for most commons images along as proper attribution (including CCSA level) is stated.

There was a bill proposed in 2011, S. 978  which could, taken literally, imprison someone for embeds a copyrighted video if 10 people watched it (the “10 strikes law”).   The bill apparently died.

(Posted: Saturday, October 28, 2017 at 1 PM EDT)

U.S. Copyright Office considers European-style implementation of “moral rights”

The United States Copyright Office is seeking comments on a proposal to expand the concept of “moral rights” to creators of content (usually literary works) in the United States, to make these rights follow a pattern more like those in Europe.  The Federal Register explanation is here.

Moral rights typically mean first that authors have the right to expect to receive attribution when their work is used.  For example, Wikipedia normally asks users to attribute authors of photos when using these photos under CCSA licenses.  It even encourages citation of photo authors for public domain items.

The second right is more nebulous.  It presumably “protects” content creators from misuse of their work in such a way as to distort the impression that the author wanted.  For example, some songwriters or composers might not want their music to be mixed or re-adapted for disco-style parodies.  But generally, US law allows this as long as the work is “transformative”.  And the use of “transformation” is becoming more common anyway in the way that some classical music works are commissioned these days.  Jonathan Biss recently commissioned five composers to develop derivate piano concerti from each of the five Beethoven piano concerti.  It was common in the past for pianists to compose their own cadenzas to concerti, and Mozart even allowed pianists to develop the left hand part for most of his 26th piano concerto (the “Coronation”).  Derivative works in the classical world these days often involve collaboration of multiple composers on one work.

But conceivably “moral rights” could be construed as allowing a content creator to allow his work to be reviewed even on certain kinds of politically adversarial websites, on a theory that such commentary misleads the public.

The moral rights controversy reminds me of an attempt, around the year 2000, of some companies to prevent deep links into their sites, as “misleading” or denying them revenue from having to go through a home page with its ads.  But around 2001 courts rules that deep hyperlinks are nothing more than footnotes on a term paper (with “Ibid” and “op cit”).

Kerry Sheehan and Kit Walsh have a detailed article opposing the Copyright Office’s idea on the Electronic Frontier Foundation site, here.

(Posted: Monday, April 3, 2017 at 7:45 PM EST)

Music industry (and probably Hollywood) wants an even tougher DMCA


On Wednesday, June 1, 2016, the Business Day section of the New York Times led off with a story by Ben Sisario, “Music world asks to change law to get better deal with YouTube” .  This latest outburst from the establishment concerns the Safe Harbor of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998.

Google has a system called Content-ID, which copyright owners can join (sometimes through agents or affiliates).   The use partially automates prescreening for obvious infringement.

We’re all familiar with the problem of quick takedowns of videos for alleged copyright infringement, and with Electronic Frontier Foundations many posts on the subject.  Violators can appeal, and EFF has a detailed guide that walks the speaker through the appeal process after a takedown.  There seems to be real disagreement on what constitutes Fair Use (including “mashups” of pre-existing material).

Nevertheless, the music industry complains, that earning money through YouTube is hard, at a time when vinyl and CD sales, and actual mp3 sales, too, have declined.  Looking for violators, the industry says, is still laborious.  YouTube closes accounts for repeat violators (I’ve often seen that with embeds) but new accounts get created and repost offending material.


I use YouTube to play classical music, especially ends of major postromantic compositions, most of which I have legal CD (or even vinyl) copies of; but it is much easier to play on a computer (with the sound and speaker quality being as good now) than to look for a physical copy.  Forty years ago, as a young adult, I was much better at keeping a record collection (maybe vulnerable to disaster) organized than I am now.  As a consumer, I would be happy to have an entire collection in the Cloud – which you can set up with Amazon or iTunes) – but I would need to learn to use it that way, and there would have to be some systematic security, some best practices.  I could also imagine keeping an entire collection on a hard drive, backed up by a Cloud Service – but I’d need my own backups of that, too, just incase of ransomware.  So YouTube makes listening easy.  It’s more about convenience and labor than money, for me, as a consumer.

And I empathize with the need for artists to make a living on their work.  I have friends in NYC and LA (and, as it happens, Belgium) in that situation.  I’ve bought stuff through Bandcamp, and had some technical issues.  But artists face other issues, like getting gigs or acting roles, or getting commissions for composition.

I’m not sure exactly what changes in the DMCA the music industry wants now.   James Grimmelmann, a professor at the University of Maryland law school, warns, “Anything that rewrites the DMCA isn’t going to affect just YouTube; … It’s going to affect blogs. It’s going to affect fan sites. It’s going to affect places for games creators and documentarians and all kinds of others.”  I’ve wondered of bloggers could be liable for embedding video that infringes.  EFF says, no, because an embed is just a hyperlink. I think there could be a problem with deliberately embedding something you know infringes, and I don’t embed YouTube or Vimeo videos that appear likely to be illegal to me.  When possible, for movie trailers, I prefer trailers from the movie distributors or production companies themselves.  For television content, I prefer content originating from the broadcast companies (CNN, Fox, NBC, ABC) themselves, if possible.  I have seen embeds disappear and go gray for copyright, but I simply replace them when I find them.

Mundane Matt explains how content creators use Content-ID, and how they used to have to be “vetted”.   He also discusses frivolous copyright claims over small stuff, and how Fair Use doesn’t protect most account holders in practice.  Most YouTube videos get their hits and make their ad money in the first few days of posting when based on news, he says. So YouTube is developing a way to pay both the user and copyright owner “properly” once a dispute is resolved, but the process is tricky and difficult.

Another discussion, for a different post, is how “free content” from amateurs not trying to make a living on their soapboxes could indirectly affect the music and video world for people who do need to sell.

(Published: Thursday, June 2, 2016, at 12 Noon EDT)