Pending before the 9th CircuitScott-Hervey-10-web is a case which may change the landscape for online copyright protection. The case, Lenz v. Universal, may make it more difficult for copyright owners to protect against infringement in today’s environment of hyper infringement. Defenders of Lenz argue that this case represents the quest for a legitimate balance between overzealous copyright enforcement and legitimate, non-infringing use.

The facts of Lenz are fairly simple. Lenz posted to YouTube a very short video of her young child dancing to a Prince song playing in the background. At the time, Universal Music Publishing was managing Prince’s music publishing. An attorney at Universal manually reviewed the posting but acknowledged that he did not consider whether the Lenz video was fair use. Universal sent a DMCA takedown notice to YouTube and YouTube removed access to the video. Most normal takedown situations end there; however, Lenz was upset and, after trying and failing to remedy the situation herself, sought the aid of attorneys at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The DMCA was enacted in 1999 as an attempt by Congress to stem the tide of rampant online copyright infringement. The DMCA offered copyright owners a streamlined process for taking down from the Internet allegedly infringing material and online service providers had great incentive to follow the process laid out in the DMCA; to not do so opened one up to potential secondary liability for their users’ activities. Congress included a requirement that the allegation of infringement in a takedown notice include a statement that the sender had a good faith belief that the posting of the allegedly infringing content was not authorized by law. Specifically, Section 512(c)(3)(A)(v) requires a takedown notice to include “[a] statement that the complaining party has a good faith belief that use of the material in the manner complained of is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent, or the law.”

Congress also included in the statute a prohibition against making a misrepresentation in a takedown notice. Section 512(f) provides:

(f) Misrepresentations — Any person who knowingly materially misrepresents under this section—
(1) that material or activity is infringing, or
(2) that material or activity was removed or disabled by mistake or misidentification,
shall be liable for any damages, including costs and attorneys’ fees, incurred by the alleged infringer, by any copyright owner or copyright owner’s authorized licensee, or by a service provider, who is injured by such misrepresentation, as the result of the service provider relying upon such misrepresentation in removing or disabling access to the material or activity claimed to be infringing, or in replacing the removed material or ceasing to disable access to it.

Lenz contends that Universal violated Section 512(f) when it failed to consider fair use prior to sending the takedown notice. The court made clear earlier in the case that fair use is a use authorized by law and a copyright owner must consider fair use before proceeding with a takedown notice under the DMCA. Universal acknowledged that while it considered other factors that are relevant to a fair use analysis, it did not engage in a fair use analysis per se. Is this sufficient to impose Section 512(f) liability on Universal? Lenz argues that it is. Lenz argues that her post was clearly fair use and that Universal’s failure to consider fair use was willful blindness. Universal argues that it is not. Universal argues that its failure to engage in a fair use analysis when it was unaware that such analysis was required is not a “knowing” misrepresentation and points to 9th Circuit precedent which holds that the good faith requirement in § 512(c)(3)(A)(v) is to be evaluated according to a subjective standard.

Whether or not Universal’s lack of actual knowledge that it should perform an initial fair use assessment before sending a takedown notice allows it to escape liability under Section 512(f) is just one issue at the center of the appeal. Another issue being pressed by Universal is whether, and to what degree, a copyright owner must engage in a fair use analysis before sending a takedown notice. The determination of this issue will have ramifications on the ability of all content owners to police online infringement.

At oral argument before the 9th Circuit on July 7, 2015, Universal argued that the DMCA takedown system “simply can’t function” if owners need to engage in a fact intensive fair use analysis prior to sending a takedown notice. “Is that an argument you should be making to Congress?” U.S. Circuit Judge Mary H. Murguia asked. “The plain text, a reading of it, says that fair use should, or could be, and likely needs to be, considered.”

The court acknowledged that such a requirement would impose a greater challenge on a copyright owner’s ability to police online infringement. In questioning Lenz’s attorney, the court asked “Doesn’t [the fact that millions of DMCA takedown notices are filed each year, and only a fraction of a percent of them are later disputed by the targeted users] suggest that copyright infringement is rampant all over the Internet and that what you’re asking for here is a clarification or an interpretation of the law that will make it more onerous on the copyright owners to get these takedowns accomplished against people who are truly infringing their copyright?”