A 23-year-old South Carolina barber who took a cell phone video of a police officer shooting a fleeing suspect is sending cease-and-desist letters to news outlets that use his footage claims copyright infringement, according to the New York Times.

Feidin Santana made a three-minute recording of Officer Michael Slager shooting 50-year-old Walter Scott in the back eight times on April 4. Scott ran from Slager after a traffic stop; allegedly for a broken tail light. Santana said that Scott was trying to flee the officer’s taser.

Santana’s video was viewed more than a million times on YouTube alone, according to the Times.

According to his publicist, Santana is seeking $10,000 for each use of his video by the news media.

As noted in Major Principles of Media Law (2012),

whenever one station or network comes up with a particularly powerful video segment, everyone else rushes to get it on the air– and worries about copyright permissions later.

Fair Use

Some commentators have stated that the unlicensed media use of Santana’s video would be permitted under the “fair use” exception to copyright law.

However, the history of similar copyright cases suggests that it is not necessarily that straightforward.

Rodney King

In 1991, the police beating of Rodney King was recorded by George Holliday, a plumber who sought $10,000 each from the 900 news outlets that aired his video.

Holliday sued the outlets for copyright infringement. A federal judge dismissed his lawsuit in 1993 in part on the grounds that:

  • The media use of his videotape fell within the fair use doctrine.
  • The First Amendment permits public airing of certain works “of great importance to democratic debate.”

Reginald Denny

The Ninth Circuit ruled in 1997 that the fair use doctrine did not necessarily cover the use of video taken of the beating of Reginald Denny by rioters in the wake of the “not guilty” verdict for the police officers who beat King. The case was Los Angeles News Service v. KCAL-TV Channel 9.

President Kennedy

A short 8 millimeter color film made by Abraham Zapruder of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 was also the subject of a copyright dispute.  It was sold to Life Magazine for $150,000 and Life registered the film with the US Copyright Office.  A US District Court ruled that despite Life’s ownership of the copyright, another author’s use of 22 frames from the film was fair use under copyright law. The 1968 decision was Time Inc. v. Bernard Geis Associates.

Risky Business

As the authors of the Media Law text conclude,

Under the KCAL decision, broadcast journalists who use even highly newsworthy video footage on the air without first obtaining a copyright clearance may risk a lawsuit.