This Baby Just Changed the Game for How Music is Used in Videos

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2007 is ancient history in today’s digital era, when entire forms of communication and thinking can be made virtually archaic overnight with the development of a new app or hashtag. However, a video uploaded to YouTube all those eight years ago is now finding itself trending again, this time for much more powerful reasons. The video, a seemingly innocuous clip of a baby dancing around while a Prince track plays in the background, is only 30 seconds long and is typical of a lot of YouTube fodder – it’s a homemade, low-budget, family-focused piece of visual family history ostensibly created to share with family members and loved ones. Yet, below the surface, it encompassed one of today’s murkiest legal challenges involving the fair use of copyrighted material on the internet.

As reported by NPR, the case in question is Lenz vs. Universal and represents the video’s creator, Stephanie Lenz (mother of the starring baby) and the music licensing behemoth that is Universal Music Group. According to writer Laura Wagner, “Universal Music Group sent YouTube a warning to take the video down, claiming copyright infringement under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Then, Stephanie Lenz…represented by Electronic Frontier Foundation [EFF], sued Universal for wrongly targeting lawful fair use.” Three circuit judges in San Francisco side with the Lenz family, adding what might sound like a bookmark to the ongoing conversation about fair use but which is only one part of what promises to be an omnipresent aspect of life in the digital era.

According to NPR’s Laura Sydell, “the case is significant because critics say copyright owners like Universal abuse the take down process often at the expense of free expression.” The EFF echoed Sydell’s sentiments, adding that “We will all watch a lot of online video and analysis of presidential candidates in the months to come, and this ruling will help make sure that information remains uncensored,” and for many of us, those online videos will be watched on YouTube, a platform whose growing stature in the world of online media is extending beyond videos and into music-streaming services.

In a recent article on Noisey, it’s reported that “video music streaming sites like YouTube/Vevo are growing 60.6 percent faster than all on-demand audio streaming services combined, paid or free.” That statistic, along with the reported fact that it “breaks down to 76.6 billion music video streams over the first half of 2015, a spike of more than 109 percent from the same time the year before” and that audio-only services like Spotify and Rhapsody have only amassed “58.6 billion streams total,” means that YouTube’s seat at the table is getting exponentially bigger. As YouTube’s influence continues to grow and influence the shifting digital marketplace, the fact that a video uploaded to its site is now playing such a huge role in related developments is of utmost importance, as it speaks towards the site’s future roles in sharing uncensored, freely created content.

With last week’s ‘Dancing Baby’ ruling and the upcoming presidential election sure to dominate much of YouTube’s content, what does fair use mean for the average user? There is yet a one-size-fits-all amendment to the use of copyrighted material like music, logos, and other intellectual properties so the answer is unclear. Internet culture, including things like Vine, memes, and GIFs are all subject to the same murky waters, and as smartphones and apps become more commonplace than pencils and wristwatches, the laws and guidelines surrounding rightful property online are sure to remain a hotly argued part of contemporary life in much of the world. In recent news, Kentucky court clerk Kim Davis is reportedly the subject of a lawsuit after using Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” as her song of choice upon walking out of jail for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses, an event filmed and uploaded onto YouTube. Cases like these are simultaneously ubiquitous and perplexing. Where does intellectual property end and creative license begin, especially on the World Wide Web?

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