A California city cannot hold one of its citizens liable for copyright infringement for using clips of city council meetings in his critical YouTube videos, a federal judge has ruled.

The August 20, 2015 order in City of Inglewood v. Joseph Teixeira, 2015 WL 5025839 (C.D. Cal. Aug. 20, 2015), makes clear that California governmental agencies cannot enforce copyright in public records absent specific statutory authorization. The decision by United States District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald of the Central District of California also bolsters a growing consensus among federal courts that it is proper to dismiss copyright actions on the basis of fair use at the earliest stages of the proceedings where the defense is apparent from the works themselves.

The action arose from several documentary-style videos posted to YouTube by Joseph Teixeira, a resident of Inglewood, a city of about 112,000 people located near Los Angeles International Airport. The videos are sharply critical of the public statements and conduct of Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts, Jr. at city council meetings. They feature short clips from the city’s official recordings of these public proceedings, heavily modified with original text and narration that consists of Mr. Teixeira responding to the mayor’s remarks and criticizing his political positions.

In one video, for example, Mr. Teixeira juxtaposes his original footage documenting traffic problems near a well-known Inglewood event venue with short clips of Mayor Butts positively characterizing the traffic situation in remarks at a council meeting. He also criticizes the mayor’s remarks directly with on-screen text superimposed over the meeting footage and narration accusing the mayor of lying. Other videos use similar techniques to address municipal issues such as crime, governmental transparency, and a controversy about the mayor’s residency at the time he ran for office.

The city filed suit against Mr. Teixeira on March 12, 2015, claiming that his use of footage from the city’s public meeting videos constituted copyright infringement. The city’s complaint sought actual damages and attorneys’ fees, as well as injunctive relief.

Mr. Teixeira moved to dismiss, arguing that: (1) the city is precluded by California law from asserting copyright protection in public records of its council meetings and (2) his videos are protected by the fair use doctrine. In a comprehensive opinion granting Mr. Teixeira’s motion and dismissing the complaint with prejudice, the court agreed with both points.

On the threshold issue, the court noted that while the “Copyright Act bars protection for works created by the federal government, … whether state and local governments can claim copyright protection is governed by state law.” After examining the relevant state law, the court concluded that “absent particular statutorily provided exceptions, California public entities are prohibited from enforcing any copyrights they may acquire as a matter of federal law. Whether in the eyes of federal law the city holds a copyright in the videos is irrelevant in the face of the state’s decision that its entities may not act to enforce that copyright.”

The court relied primarily on the California Court of Appeal’s decision in County of Santa Clara v. Superior Court, 170 Cal. App. 4th 1301 (2009).  That court reasoned that the California Constitution and California Public Records Act (CPRA) create a broad presumption of unrestricted disclosure of public records that “overrides a governmental agency’s ability to claim a copyright in its work unless the legislature has expressly authorized a public records exemption.” Id. at 1335. The court also noted that California has a number of statutes specifically authorizing public agencies to assert copyright protection in certain enumerated items, such as computer software and educational materials, suggesting that such specific statutory authorization is a prerequisite to copyright enforcement. Id.

Because Inglewood did not identify any specific grant of authority permitting it to enforce copyright protection in its video recordings of its city council meetings, the court held that its complaint failed as a matter of law.

The court also proceeded to consider Mr. Teixeira’s alternative argument that his videos are protected by the fair use doctrine. Citing recent case law such as the 7th Circuit’s opinion in Brownmark Films, LLC v. Comedy Partners, 682 F.3d 687 (7th Cir. 2012), the court found it appropriate to resolve Mr. Teixeira’s fair use argument on a motion to dismiss because it was clear that the defense applied based on a review of the allegedly infringing works themselves, which were incorporated by reference into the complaint. Before issuing its ruling, the court allowed Inglewood to conduct limited discovery solely to confirm the authenticity of the copies of the videos that Mr. Teixeira submitted to the court.

The judge determined that each statutory factor favored a finding of fair use: (1) Mr. Teixeira’s videos are “quintessential transformative works for the purpose of criticism and commentary on matters of public concern” (while Mr. Teixeira’s videos are non-commercial, the court found them to be transformative even assuming a commercial use for the sake of argument); (2) given the “barely creative nature” and “informational purpose” of the council meeting videos, “they enjoy very narrow copyright protection”;  (3) Mr. Teixeira “uses only small portions of the total works and uses them for very specific and particular purposes”; and (4) “there can therefore be no commercial market for the city council videos and no activity by Teixeira can deprive the city of any revenue,” given that California law bars the city from charging anything more than the “direct costs of duplication” when providing copies of public records. Moreover, the court found that Mr. Teixeira’s sharply critical videos would not be a substitute for the city’s unadorned council meeting videos, even assuming a market could exist.

In sum, the court concluded that it could “scarcely conceive of works that are more appropriately protected by the fair use doctrine … than the Teixeira Videos. He is engaged in core First Amendment speech commenting on political affairs and matters of public concern.” Finding that any amendment would be futile, the court dismissed the city’s complaint without leave to amend.