In February 2007, mom Stephanie Lenz uploaded a YouTube video of her baby dancing to the Prince song, “Let’s Go Crazy.” She had no way of knowing, but that short 29-second clip would end up at the heart of one of the most important intellectual property cases of the decade.
Let’s back up.
Ever since Napster burst onto the scene, giving every middle school student with computer access the ability to download — also known as stealing — any song they wanted, internet piracy has been a major issue. By some estimates, about 25% of all internet traffic is devoted to consuming copyright-infringing content of some kind.
Even now, record labels, TV/movie studios, and sports broadcasters simply can’t issue take-down notices fast enough, as 100 new pirated files appear online for every one they take down. To stem the flow of pirated content, copyright holders started issuing cease and desist letters en masse. And that left average citizens like Lenz in the crossfire. Without a team of intellectual property attorneys at their disposal, most people had no way to fight back when YouTube pulled their videos, even if it was clearly an example of fair use.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation decided the “Let’s Go Crazy” video would make a good test case, and successfully defended Lenz in court. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this year that copyright holders must consider fair use before issuing take-down notices. In short, fair use allows creators to use copyrighted material for the purpose of news, criticism, research, education, and other limited purposes — such as a baby dancing to a Prince song.
“Today’s ruling sends a strong message that copyright law does not authorize thoughtless censorship of lawful speech,” said EFF Legal Director Corynne McSherry at the time.
What does this mean for intellectual property cases in 2016 and beyond? This November, YouTube has decided to back up its users. The massive video site will pay for the legal costs of certain video makers, covering things like intellectual property lawyers. So far, YouTube is only supporting four individuals and groups that use its services, but hopes to expand its legal support in 2016.
“We want, when we can, to have our users’ backs,” said Fred von Lohmann, the Legal Director for copyright and patent laws at YouTube. “We believe even the small number of videos we are able to protect will make a positive impact on the entire YouTube ecosystem.”
Still, that doesn’t mean copyright holders will start going easy on people who infringe on their content. Intellectual property and copyrighted material makes up more than half of U.S. exports, which drives 40% of all economic growth. And since intellectual property rights lawyers estimate that up to 9% of all products bought and sold worldwide violate the IP rights of U.S. citizens, corporations, and entrepreneurs, it’s absolutely vital that intellectual property theft is treated like the crime that it is.