How Google Treats Copyright as an Inconvenience: Supreme Court Brief of @davidclowery, @helienne, @theblakemorgan and @sgawrites in Google v. Oracle, Part 5

Google’s appeal of its major loss to Oracle on fair use is shaping up to be the most important copyright case of the year, if not the decade.  It could set fair use standards for years to come.  We’re going to be posting installments from the friend of the court brief that David, Helienne, Blake and The Songwriters Guild filed in the U.S. Supreme Court supporting Oracle in the Google v. Oracle fair use case.  This is part 5.  We decided to omit the footnotes for this posting, but you can read the whole brief here.

Cover Page
Cover Page of Friend of the Court Brief


B. Google Benefits Commercially from Weaker Copyright Protection.

Amici, as creators in the digital age, are largely beholden to the whims of distributors. As romantic the notion is of solitary artists laboring over their works, the fact remains that they will ultimately need to distribute their creative expression. That means going
through Google far more often than not.

Artists like Amici have a tense relationship with Google and its subsidiaries. On the one hand, Google controls access to the market directly or indirectly. On the other hand, Google has consistently abused or outright ignored copyright when it comes to
interactions with creators and their intellectual property.

For example, when YouTube rolled out its subscription service, it reportedly warned independent artists and labels that if they refused YouTube’s licensing terms, their music would be blocked on YouTube’s free service, and YouTube would keep any advertising revenue. Ben Sisario, Independent Music Labels Are in a Battle with YouTube, N.Y. Times
(May 24, 2014)

In Amici’s experience, Google has a long history of leveraging copyright exceptions for its enormous profit at creators’ expense. Through YouTube, Google profits directly from verbatim copies of Amici’s own works. These copies are often unauthorized, unlicensed, and severely undermonetized. See Jonathan Taplin, Do You Love Music? Silicon Valley Doesn’t, L.A. Times (May 20, 2016).

Google is able to artificially lower the floor for the market for music and other copyrighted works by strategically leveraging a variety of copyright exceptions and loopholes across all of its platforms, particularly YouTube and search.

As discussed above, in order to maximize user engagement with its ads, Google needs a constant influx of creative content. Copyright is treated as an imposition, and Google avoids liability through an abuse of exceptions such as the safe harbor provisions
in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. See 17 U.S.C. § 512(a)–(d). Google frequently argues that these provisions immunize Google from liability for infringing content, while also making it very easy for Google to restore content with the check of a box.

Google has cobbled together a system of copyright “strikes” based on DMCA notices received from copyright owners against infringing YouTube channels. With sufficient strikes, YouTube blocks public access to the channel. The channel operator, however, can easily restore content by filing a counternotification with YouTube often attesting without firm legal grounds to a good faith belief that their unauthorized use of the material is non-infringing.

Such an assertion frequently mimics Google’s general assertions that the fair use doctrine is malleable enough to accommodate any use no matter how damaging, non-transformative, commercially based or unnecessarily broad. See 17 U.S.C. § 512(g)(3)(C).
Assuming the copyright owner does not seek relief in court—and very few do because of the prohibitive costs and time required—then YouTube restores the content, and Google has another video to monetize.

Thus, assertions of fair use (real or imagined) play a critical role in this scheme, and therefore ultimately Google’s advertising inventory. YouTube’s counternotification
webform, in fact, arguably encourages a channel operator to claim a good-faith belief that its infringing video was fair use under the broadest of circumstances. See Lenz v. Universal Music Corp., 801 F.3d 1126 (9th Cir. 2015).

These channel operators are rarely represented by counsel, meaning their claims of fair use are more folk wisdom and internet legend than law. Five-time Grammy Award winner and independent composer and band leader Maria Schneider gave an example of this culture in comments to the Copyright Office:

“As just one small example, just put in the YouTube “search” bar the phrases “fair use” and “full CD.” There are literally countless whole albums digitally uploaded by users who state that it is “fair use” (which it obviously isn’t).

YouTube knows there is infringement of epic proportions broadly across its platform, and . . .certainly makes it possible, and easier, for infringement to occur.”

Coupled with its porous repeat infringer policy, YouTube has leveraged counternotifications into a broad-based fair use business strategy—truly an attempt to fashion its non-existent “fair use industries” entirely out of whole cloth.

Google overamplifies fair use in other ways. For example, since 2015, YouTube has  sponsored an initiative to subsidize legal fees for certain fair use cases that it decides are “some of the best examples of fair use on YouTube by agreeing to defend them in
court if necessary.”34 YouTube announced that it intended to “indemnify creators whose fair use videos have been subject to takedown notices for up to $1 million of legal costs in the event the takedown results in a lawsuit for copyright infringement.”

Google tells us “[they] believe even the small number of videos [Google] are able to protect will make a positive impact on the entire YouTube ecosystem, ensuring
YouTube remains a place where creativity and expression can be rewarded.”

The promise of Google’s million-dollar fair use indemnity promotion effectively provides a faux license against copyright liability without the consent of the copyright owner, and purports to protect YouTube partners for fair use cases that Google judges worthy, i.e., cases that promote Google’s private interests in protecting and expanding YouTube’s advertising inventory. It is unclear which, if any, cases Google or YouTube have taken on under this indemnity or what the criteria would be because Google does not disclose
when or if they get involved. One can easily discern through market behavior, however, that the threat alone more than satisfies Google’s imputed aims to dissuade creators from even attempting to enforce their rights.

[To be continued…]