Rodeo cowboys lassoed for DMCA misuse over cruelty videos
By John Timmer
June 12, 2008
We would all recognize the basic plot: an animal rights group does some filming of behavior it considers abusive, and then brings the videos to wide public attention as a way of embarrassing the organization responsible. That plot took some unusual turns recently, as the videos wound up on YouTube and the organization, instead of being embarrassed, filed a DMCA claim to get the videos removed from YouTube. Now, the EFF is joining the animal rights group in trying to clarify who owns the copyright on the videos, and seeking an injunction against any takedown claims.
The rights group in question is SHARK, or SHowing Animals Respect and Kindness. Their focus is behavior at rodeos, where animals are involved in competitions that the group views as leaving them "brutalized, maimed, and shocked." Since 2006, they've been filming rodeos, capturing clips that they allege show animals injured and dying due to their involvement, and rodeo participants using devices to give animals electric shocks to ensure dramatic performances. The group established an account and posted those videos on YouTube.
Late last year, the organization behind many rodeos, the PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association), filed DMCA takedown notices, claiming that the material is copyrighted. SHARK fought back, having a lawyer send a letter to YouTube indicating that the copyright claims were "baseless." YouTube gave the group a Christmas present, restoring its account and content in December.
That's where things stood until two days ago when SHARK, assisted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, filed suit in the Eastern District of Illinois, seeking injunctive relief and damages from the PRCA. The suit (PDF) calls the PRCA out for "falsely stating under penalty of perjury that the PRCA was the owner of a copyright in the footage." It alleges that the PRCA knew that it did not own the copyright on the events appearing in the SHARK videos, and the organization would have known that if it had exercised due diligence.
Under the section of copyright law cited in the suit, "anyone who knowingly misrepresents... that material or activity is infringing... shall be liable for any damages, including costs and attorneys' fees, incurred by the alleged infringer." The suit asks the court to decide, via a jury trial, who owns the copyright of the materials in the SHARK videos, and to award appropriate damages.
Although the specifics of the case focus on animal cruelty, the implications are far broader. "This copyright claim is completely baseless, and made simply to block the public from seeing SHARK's controversial videos," said EFF Staff Attorney Corynne McSherry. "The PRCA can't be permitted to silence its critics through a misuse of the law." The DMCA was intended to prevent distribution of commercial content, but it is frequently misused by individuals, groups, and companies to get content they find objectionable off the Internet as quickly as possible. With its powerful takedown provision, the DMCA is a tempting hammer to wield, but the consequences for doing so can be severe—as the PRCA may soon discover.