A panel of federal judges in San Francisco has overturned a decision that required Google to pull the controversial film The Innocence of Muslims from its video-hosting site YouTube. The ruling is being hailed as a victory for Google and for free speech. It also marks a big win for movie studios.
The appellate court found that the plaintiff, actress Cindy Lee Garcia, did not hold a claim to a copyright in her performance in the 14-minute film. Garcia had a five-second cameo in the 2012 movie and spoke two lines, which were later dubbed over with language disparaging of the Muslim prophet Muhammed. Garcia said she received multiple death threats as a result of the film.
The majority opinion cited the US Copyright Office’s “longstanding practices [that] do not allow a copyright claim by an individual actor or actress in his or her performance contained within a motion picture.” (The Copyright Office had rejected Garcia’s copyright application.)
While a setback for actors’ unions, the ruling should come as a big relief to film studios, given the implications for big Hollywood productions with large casts. Lord of the Rings, for example, used 20,000 extras in the filming of the trilogy.
“Treating every acting performance as an independent work would not only be a logistical and financial nightmare,” according to the court opinion, “it would turn cast of thousands into a new mantra: copyright of thousands.”