A US federal appeals court is reconsidering a decision to order YouTube to take down an anti-Muslim film clip that sparked violence in the Middle East and death threats to the actors from those who considered it blasphemous to the Prophet Mohammed.
An 11-judge panel of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena was to hear arguments yesterday by Google, which owns YouTube, disputing the court’s decision to remove Innocence of Muslims from the popular video-sharing service.
A divided three-judge panel ruled in February that actress Cindy Lee Garcia had a copyright claim to the 2012 video, because she believed she was acting in a much different production than the one that appeared.
Garcia was paid US$500 for a movie called Desert Warrior she believed had nothing to do with religion, but ended up in a five-second scene in which her voice was dubbed over so her character asked if Mohammed was a child molester.
“These, of course, are fighting words to many faithful Muslims and, after the film aired on Egyptian television, there were protests that generated worldwide news coverage,” US Judge Alex Kozinski wrote in the 2-1 opinion.
“While answering a casting call for a low-budget amateur film doesn’t often lead to stardom, it also rarely turns an aspiring actress into the subject of a fatwa,” he said.
Google argued that the copyright was owned by filmmaker Mark Basseley Youssef, who wrote the script, managed the production and dubbed over Garcia’s dialogue.
A dissenting judge said Garcia played no creative role that would give her ownership rights.
Until the court order, YouTube had rejected calls by US President Barack Obama and other world leaders to pull the video, arguing that it would amount to government censorship and violate free speech protections.
Google is supported in its appeal by an unusual alliance that includes filmmakers, Internet rivals such as Yahoo and prominent news media companies such as the New York Times that do not want the court to infringe on First Amendment rights.
Garcia has support from the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Musicians.
If the court upholds the smaller panel’s ruling, YouTube and other Internet companies could face takedown notices from others in minor video roles.
Alex Lawrence, a copyright and intellectual property lawyer in New York not connected with the case, said he thinks the court will reverse the earlier ruling because the judges reached a decision to give Garcia some relief on thinly grounded law.
“There’s a lot of sympathy for Miss Garcia,” Lawrence said. “She got paid US$500 and received death threats. Everyone feels sympathy for her, but using copyright in this way is a real problem for a lot of industries.”
The film drew the attention of federal prosecutors, who discovered that Youssef had used several false names in violation of probation from a 2010 check fraud case.
He was sent back to prison in 2012 and was released on probation in September last year.
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