Blog Post

Case Studies in Fair Use Abuse

The case against Viacom for issuing a bogus takedown notice for a parody video which used clips of The Colbert Report has been dropped by lawyers from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Stanford Law’s Fair Use Project. Viacom, which had denied issuing this particular takedown request to YouTube but has since recanted, publicly promised it will honor the use of “a limited excerpt for non-commercial purposes,” according to the release from the EFF.

While Viacom maintained that it had no problem with the content of the clip, which was produced by MoveOn and Brave New Films, the implications of powerful organizations being able to get clips pulled with just the click of a button or call to YouTube’s headquarters was enough to make the EFF apprehensive, and with good reason. While in this case, Viacom’s motivation likely wasn’t to stifle dissent (accidental error made in a fit of rage is more like it), it is still a potential issue.

To illustrate such a worst-case scenario of inappropriate behavior by a wealthy rightsholder toward work critical of that rightsholder, I present the story of The Bridge — “the first feature film about Scientology.”

Shot in five days in Norway Memphis by film student Brett Hanover, it’s an admirable effort by a first-time filmmaker, but the production value is minimal and the structure episodic, making for a somewhat wooden narrative. But the premise and script were helped by efforts from former Scientologists and anti-cultists to craft an allegorical critique of the Church of Scientology.

The movie features all sorts of insider references, including clips from videos produced by the church, church practices such as auditing, and even the church’s custom web filter.

After screening his film at the Memphis Film Festival, Hanover released it online last September, and the credits declare “The Bridge is licensed as royalty-free digital media, and may be distributed online for personal viewing without permission.” While elements of the film are owned by the church, it’s pretty clear in my lay opinion that in the context of the film it’s fair use.

A few weeks later, Hanover pulled the movie from his site and requested that other people who had posted it remove it also, with statement saying only “due to copyright issues, I ask that this film be withdrawn from circulation… Do not contact me concerning this film, I am no longer supporting it.” That statement, and all other traces of the film, have since been removed from his site, other sites which promoted the film and even the Internet Archive, which cited rights issues.

Longtime anti-Scientology activist Mark Bunker of XenuTV suggested that Hanover was pressured by the church to pull the footage, which certainly isn’t far-fetched. The church has a legacy of using copyright issues to try to silence opposition, relying on the DMCA to lobby everyone from Google to a Canadian ISP to purge documents and links to those documents it considers infringing or promoting infringement.

With the recent news about “Claim Your Content”, my concern is that by building a tool for legitimate rights holders to police their content, Google will also enable those who would abuse it. The company has yet to reveal how it plans to restore content as quickly and easily as it can be taken down, and its decisions to favor business potential over freedoms of speech are still growing, even after its China debacle.

If an organization like Scientology can use copyright law as a bullying tactic to censor video content like The Bridge, imagine what a national party, government or international corporate conglomerate could do.

7 Responses to “Case Studies in Fair Use Abuse”

  1. Mary McConnell

    TrueFilms, it was interesting to see where things stand during this evolution of Fair Use of media and and film maker rights. Nice blog

    Despite the impression NewTeeVee gave, The Bridge movie is alive and well on the internet and on this very page that you refer to in your article.

    If it’s maker Brett Hanover could speak his mind without reprecussions from The Church of Scientology, I suspect he’d thank you for taking the time to see his attempst to give the viewer a small but significant piece of what scientology does not want the public to see.

    You mention Fair Use within a documentary format. It’s interesting how Scientology was not able to prevent filmaker Karl-Rainer Blumenthal from creating and distributing his ‘Friend of Mankind ‘ documentary abouty L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology using a compilation of historical media critical of L. Ron Hubbard. It was the lack of copyright ownership to the content that prevented them from doing so.

    ‘Friend Of Mankind ‘ is an excellent documentary for the uninformed and informed alike. Both it , The Bridge movie and many others can be found over at Mark Bunker’s XenuTv

    It is also not controllable by scientology because they never anticipated how media would evolvenor did they see that the internet was going to be it’s biggest battle. So far, the internet is winning and for the average me, that is a good thing.

  2. Mary McConnell

    Thanks for this very informative and helpful article. The ‘Claim your Content” issue has many unanswered questions but you zero’d in on the fundamental threat.

    You also provided an excellent worst-case scenerio with The Church of Scientology vs teen filmmaker Brett Hanover and his movie, The Bridge.

    Scientology is the internet’s biggest bully . Brett is not the first, nor the last to have been scared by the church attornies or gagged into submission because of a copyright issue. However, Brett is probably the youngest and most talented to date.

    Many were horrified to see how quickly the church pounced and how easily Brett gave in . Victims like Brett are cornered into silence…….never able to explain what it was that the church held over their head that forced the agreement to be *silent. That’s part of their plan to silence critics and Brett was no exception to the rule.

    There’s an excellent web page that documents this stuff:
    ‘Scientology Gag Agreements – A Conspiracy for Silence’

    For some victims, it’s extorted silence but presumably Brett , being a young man, probably envisioned a life of perpetual fear and poverty, so no one I know blames him for the decision to forsake any association with his own movie.

    Thankfully there are places on the net, like newteevee, where one can see the movie The Church of Scientology does not want anyone to see. :) Brett is a bright and talented young man and the critics of Scientology appreciate all that he did to get The Bridge done and out to the public. He certainly gets extra kudos for taking on the project in the first place!

    Thanks for bringing attention to the real threat that wealth and power can have over free speech on the internet. Viacom’s fake take down notice is just the tip of the iceberg.

  3. Good article. One minor trivia correction though and that wikipedia entry needs to be corrected. The Bridge movie was not shot in Norway. It premiered in Norway (at a 10 year celebration of XENU.NET hosted by Andreas Heldal-Lund). It was actually filmed in the USA. You can contact associate producer (and scientology critic) Tom Padgett for verification of the exact shooting locations (I believe it was entirely in Brett Hanover’s home city of Memphis and the film credits only mention localities: The Madison Hotel, Temple Israel, First Congregational Church, The Memphis Digital Arts Co-operative).