Garcia v. Google: Works Within Works
Garcia v. Google is a strange case. If you’re not familiar with the basic facts, here is NPR’s summary. The Ninth Circuit’s opinion can be found here (courtesy of the EFF).
Why is it a strange case? Well, it is not everyday that a copyright infringement lawsuit is predicated on the putative copyright owner’s fear of death threats due to her fraudulently procured authorial contribution to a work viewed by a religious community as blasphemous. But it is also a strange day when Google, rather than simply taking down a video in response to a DMCA request, decides to take the hard route and challenge the takedown request in federal court. And it is also a strange day when Google “Warns of Harm to Hollywood.” Throw in an absentee essential party (the putative copyright holder in the controversial film) and give all this to an exceptionally creative jurist like Chief Judge Kozinski. It’s no surprise that we get a strange and controversial opinion.
Much of the internet commentary I have seen on the decision has been negative. Eric Goldman had some initial thoughts (“shockwaves through the internet community”) and Rebecca Tushnet has offered a long, sad blow-by-blow account of both the majority opinion and the dissent in the case. There are numerous other accounts offered elsewhere–just Google for them. Notably, though, the majority of the IP experts that I know think the case was decided correctly–on its very strange facts. See, e.g., David Nimmer and Jay Dougherty quoted here.
Before offering my defense of a part of the opinion, I want to state that, as far as the relief granted goes — and especially with respect to the gag order imposed on Google — I am not a fan of this case. I’m also not a fan of the majority’s one-line First Amendment analysis. And there are clearly some very loose procedural and factual things afoot here: there are a multitude of “no evidence” assertions by the majority. However, all that said, there is one part of this opinion that seems more or less okay to me: I think it is plausible for an actor like Garcia to own a copyright interest that is infringed by a film that includes her fixed performance.