This Day In History: October 28

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According to an ABC news report, it was none other than the pop icon Prince himself who happened upon a 29-second home video of a toddler cavorting to a barely audible background soundtrack of his 1984 hit “Let’s Go Crazy” and subsequently instigated a high-profile legal showdown involving YouTube, the Universal Music Group and a Pennsylvania housewife named Stephanie Lenz. Like the lawsuits that eventually shut down Napster, the case involved a piece of federal legislation that has helped establish a legal minefield surrounding the use of digital music in the age of the Internet. That legislation, called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), was signed into law by President Bill Clinton on October 28, 1998.

The DMCA bill was heavily supported by the content industries—Hollywood, the music business and book publishers—during its legislative journey through the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. The DMCA was written in order to strengthen existing federal copyright protections against new threats posed by the Internet and by the democratization of high technology. But included in the legislation as it was eventually enacted was a “safe harbor” provision granting companies operating platforms for user-contributed content protection from liability for acts of copyright infringement by those users. It was this provision that the operators of file-sharing platforms like Grokster and Napster tried to hide behind during their unsuccessful attempts to defend themselves against DMCA-inspired litigation in the early 2000s.

The DMCA explicitly authorized copyright holders to issue “takedown” notices to individuals or companies believed to be engaging in infringing use of a copyrighted work. The allegation of infringing use in the case of the “Let’s Go Crazy” toddler came from Universal Music Group acting in its capacity as Prince’s music publisher in June 2007, and YouTube responded by immediately removing the offending video along with roughly 200 others also deemed by Universal to be in violation of the law. Stephanie Lenz appealed YouTube’s takedown of her home video on the basis that the barely audible Prince clip conformed with the long-established doctrine of Fair Use. The video was restored when Universal failed to file a formal infringement lawsuit against Lenz within two weeks.

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