Opinion

Federal judge tosses Inglewood's novel effort to muzzle a gadfly

A federal judge in Los Angeles has told the city of Inglewood in no uncertain terms that it can't try to silence a critic of Mayor James T. Butts Jr. by asserting copyrights over the official videos of City Council meetings.

Should any other local governments or agencies be similarly tempted to claim copyrights over public records, U.S. District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald's decision is a clear warning not to do so.

California cities can't claim a copyright over their public meeting videos, Fitzgerald ruled Thursday, because the Legislature has severely limited the ability of local governments and other public entities to copyright the materials they create. And even if Inglewood could copyright the videos, Fitzgerald held, the critiques made by Butts' antagonist -- local resident Joseph Teixeira -- were a fair use of the material.

The city sued Teixeira for posting half a dozen videos on YouTube that commented on Butts and his handling of city affairs. The videos included small segments copied from the official videos, which Teixeira used to highlight specific comments and actions by Butts that Teixeira deplored.

Teixeira filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the California Public Records Act effectively bars local governments from claiming federal copyrights over the records they generate. Fitzgerald agreed and dismissed the suit, citing a 2009 ruling from the 4th District Court of Appeal that held that unless the Legislature specifically grants a public entity the authority to hold copyrights, it cannot do so. According to that ruling, the state has authorized public entities to copyright only the software programs they write.

The judge rejected the city's argument that, under the U.S. Constitution's Supremacy Clause, federal copyright law trumps the state Public Records Act. "The Supremacy Clause does not forbid a state from choosing whether or not to claim copyright protection," Fitzgerald ruled, adding, "Indeed, it is probable that the Copyright Act could not require such an act from a state under the Constitution."

Having decided that the city didn't hold a copyright in the videos, Fitzgerald didn't need to address Teixeira's argument that he made a fair use of the official videos. He did so anyway "so that all issues may be appealed now, if the city chooses to do so." His analysis of the case made it clear, however, that Teixeira had at least as strong a fair-use defense as he did under the Public Records Act.

Federal copyright law sets out a four-factor test to determine whether someone is making a fair use of copyrighted material, and therefore not infringing. According to Fitzgerald, all four factors favor Teixeira.

"The videos identified in the complaint as infringing are quintessential transformative works for the purpose of criticism and commentary on matters of public concern," the judge held. The original videos were not creative in nature, he added, and Teixeira used only short clips from them. Finally, Teixeira's work couldn't possibly damage the market for the council meeting videos because state law bars the city from profiting from them, Fitzgerald ruled.

In case it wasn't already clear enough, the judge summed up his fair-use findings in even more stark terms. "The Court can scarcely conceive of works that are more appropriately protected by the fair use doctrine ... than the Teixeira Videos," Fitzgerald wrote. "He is engaged in core First Amendment speech commenting on political affairs and matters of public concern. To do so, he has taken carefully selected and short portions of significantly longer works, and embellished them with commentary and political criticism through music, his voice, and written subtitles. Even if California law allowed the City to assert a copyright claim, Teixeira’s activities plainly fall within the protections of fair use."

For the record, The Times' editorial board blasted the city in June for its expansive reading of copyright law. "There's something fundamentally outrageous," the board declared, "about using tax dollars to sue a taxpayer over the use of a public record that taxpayers paid to create."

Perhaps for his next act on YouTube, Teixeira will have something to say about who really owns the City Council's videos.

Follow Healey's intermittent Twitter feed: @jcahealey

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