Avoiding Swiss Cheese of Copyrights, Google Prevails against “Bamboozled” Actress

Posted by on Jun 1, 2015

Last month, a federal court of appeals reversed an earlier ruling that forced Google to remove a YouTube video portraying an actress making anti-Muslim statements. (Read the full opinion here) Cindy Lee Garcia, the actress objecting to her portrayal in the video in question, claimed that Google infringed on her individual copyrights by posting a short video that unwittingly portrayed her making anti-Muslim statements.

Siding with Googling, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco referred to an earlier ruling by the U.S. Copyright Office, which explained that it does not permit individual actors and actresses to make copyright claims based on their performance within a motion picture. This rule stems from the fact that motion pictures are considered to be single integrated works for the purposes of copyright registration. Simply put, the movie is the entire work itself, and a single actor or actress may not make his or her own individual copyright claim to it.

As such, the court said it would not register her personal performance apart from the movie itself. The en banc panel explained that allowing the injunction under “Garcia’s theory of copyright law would result in…splintering a movie into many different ‘works,’” which would in turn “make Swiss cheese of copyrights.” The court hypothesized that if a film had a large cast, it would then have to treat each and every individual actor as having their own copyrights within the film, causing “a logistical and financial nightmare…it would turn a cast of thousands into a new mantra: copyright of thousands.”

Garcia was hired to act in a short video, which was originally written and filmed as an action-thriller. The writer and director later turned it into anti-Muslim video, which ignited violent protests when it was released in 2012. Garcia claims to have had her life threatened as a result of video, and filed the lawsuit after Google repeatedly refused to remove the video.

Despite the political backlash of the film itself, Google and other supporters in the entertainment industry, and now the 9th Circuit agrees that granting Garcia copyright protection for Garcia’s performance would have a drastic and devastating effect on the law.