The City of Inglewood, California recently sought relief from a California federal court after Joseph Teixeira posted videos clips of Inglewood’s council meetings on his Web site. Inglewood claimed it held a copyright interest in the video recordings it makes at open public meetings and that Teixeira violated that copyright interest when he posted portions of the videos on his own Web site.

Teixeira is a resident of Inglewood. He runs a Web site called Inglewoodwatchdog.wix.com, and posts videos on YouTube. Teixeira’s videos criticize Inglewood and its elected officials and contain clips from the council meetings.

Teixeira asked the court to dismiss Inglewood’s complaint, arguing state law bars Inglewood from claiming and asserting a copyright claim over the council meeting videos. While the Copyright Act bars protection for works created by the federal government, it does not do the same for state and local governments. State law governs whether state and local governments can claim copyright protection. In California, the law establishes a strong presumption in favor of public access to public materials. According to the only published California case addressing the issue, a California public entity can’t hold a copyright absent an affirmative grant of authority.

Inglewood could not identify an affirmative grant of authority permitting it to hold a copyright over the videos. Instead, Inglewood argued that the Supremacy Clause overrides any limits on Inglewood’s ability to obtain a copyright. The court rejected the argument finding every authority that had addressed the issue has held the Supremacy Clause does not forbid a state from choosing whether or not to claim copyright protection.

The court granted Teixeira’s request for dismissal and held that a California public entity may not claim copyright protection for a work it has created even if it falls within the scope of federal copyright protection, unless a statutory express grant of authority exists.

The court didn’t stop there. The court went on to hold that even if Inglewood could claim copyright protection over the videos, Teixeira’s activity is protected fair use. The court looked at four factors. First, the court held Teixeira’s use of the videos involved matters of public concern – core First Amendment protected speech. Second, the nature of the videos – for informational purposes and barely creative – led to the conclusion that the videos were only entitled to very narrow protection. Third, Teixeira used only small and specific clips from the videos to make his points. Finally, state law specifically bars Inglewood from generating any revenue from the videos; therefore, Teixeira’s activity couldn’t deprive the city from collecting revenue from the video.

The bottom line is public bodies can’t use the copyright law – which exists to protect creativity – to shield their actions from public view.