As noted Friday by Jon Healey in his Los Angeles Times blog post, a U.S. District Court judge has ruled that Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts, Jr. had no power to claim copyright protection over city-created video records of its council meetings, and even if he had that authority, gadfly Joseph Teixeira’s use of selected clips from the video to make public safety points on Youtube would be protected as a fair use of the material. Teixeira was defended by Davis Wright Tremaine attorneys Thomas Burke and Dan Laidman. Laidman is a member of the board of directors of Californians Aware and was alerted to the problem by CalAware.
A Times editorial in June predicted the case’s outcome and its rationale.
Inglewood resident Joseph Teixeira is a pointed critic of Mayor James T. Butts Jr., having posted several videos to YouTube over the years that accuse the mayor of lying to constituents and being a lousy public servant. In other words, he’s the sort of irritant that elected officials around the state have to put up with on a daily basis. But the city of Inglewood responded in a novel and disturbing way: It sued Teixeira for copyright infringement because he used snippets of the city’s official videos of council meetings to support his criticisms. A federal judge should throw out the city’s lawsuit and send its leaders to a remedial class on the 1st Amendment.
There’s something fundamentally outrageous about using tax dollars to sue a taxpayer over the use of a public record that taxpayers paid to create. The city’s position is legally questionable too: According to a California appeals court ruling in 2009, the state Public Records Act allows local governments to assert copyrights only over computer software.
And even if it were possible for Inglewood to copyright the videos, federal law provides a “fair use” exemption when copyrighted materials are reused for commentary and criticism. That’s exactly what Teixeira did, mingling brief excerpts of the city’s recordings with his own footage in videos deriding the mayor. The city cannot credibly argue that Teixeira’s work diminishes the value of its recordings, which it must make available for free viewing, or even competes with them. The only damage the council can claim is the harm that Teixeira’s videos inflict on Butts’ reputation, and copyright law doesn’t cover that.
Actually, the lawsuit — which has cost city taxpayers at least $50,000 so far — may do more to hurt Butts’ reputation than Teixeira’s YouTube creations do. In court papers, the city insists that this case is about copyrights, not 1st Amendment rights. But the city is unmistakably targeting Teixeira for his political speech. Using copyright law to try to silence a nagging critic is not just petty, it’s an insult to the people’s right to seek changes in their government. There aren’t many American values more deeply cherished than that one.
The council filed its complaint against Teixeira in March, days after approving construction of an enormous stadium without conducting a full environmental review — or taking a vote of the people. These sorts of moves speak of a government that has no tolerance for dissent. We take no position on the merit of Teixeira’s critiques, but are adamant that he has the right to make them. If Butts and his allies on the council don’t want to be held accountable for what they do and say at public meetings, they should step down.
This is a very important decision for both the mainstream press and all kinds of watchdogs, gadflies and bloggers. Jon Stewart’s show demonstrated how powerful a tool the use of video clips can be in supporting a core purpose of the First Amendment—political commentary and criticism. Just as the use of governmentally created video of police activity is beginning to blossom, it would be devastating to both speech and press rights if citizens had to get the government’s permission to use such material as documentation of a matter of public concern. This case resoundingly removes copyright law from the toolkit of suppression that certain elements of public authority are always ready to expand.