California's City of Inglewood Can't Copyright City Council Meetings, Case Against YouTube Critic Tossed

A brief update on a case I'd written about on my old pitiful blog, where you can read more if you're interested, about the City of Inglewood, California and its ill-fated attempt to sue a YouTube critic on the basis that videos of its City Council meetings were protected by copyright.  It didn't go well, and will probably get worse for Inglewood's taxpayers.

mayor_james_butts_holds_his_tieThe background is this: the City of Inglewood in California was mighty offended that someone would actually watch boring-as-hell videos of city council meetings, and then use short clips of the meetings to make his own YouTube videos criticizing Mayor James T. Butts (yes, I know, calm down).  So, the city council scraped together a whole $595 to register some of the videos with the U.S. Copyright Office, along with a $50,000 retainer to hire Joanna Esty of Majesty Law to sue Joseph Teixeira, creator of the videos, for copyright infringement.

Teixeira moved to dismiss on the basis that California law did not authorize Inglewood to copyright its videos and, in any event, the videos were classic fair uses buttressed by the First Amendment.  Pointing out that Inglewood specifically identified the URLs of the videos at issue, Teixeira argued that the court could consider them in a motion to dismiss, because they had been incorporated into the complaint.  Usually, on a motion to dismiss, a defendant can't try to introduce evidence, and the court can only consider the words in the complaint itself.

Inglewood, true to form, argued that it was the City of Inglewood that was actually protecting the First Amendment by suing its citizen-critic, because without the ability to make money off of videos of boring-to-tears city council meetings, cities wouldn't be motivated to make such videos in the first place.  This argument was as dumb as it was galling: California law prohibits cities from making a profit off of its public records.  Inglewood also stalled, arguing that the court couldn't consider the videos at this stage because Teixeira had replaced the YouTube videos.  The judge called their bluff, allowing Inglewood to provide copies of the original videos, which might demonstrate that the videos shouldn't be considered at this stage.  When Inglewood couldn't find the original videos, the court indulged the City's bluff a little further, permitting a subpoena for the originals from YouTube.  That subpoena — shockingly — demonstrated that the videos had never changed.

This evening, Inglewood's futile effort to delay the inevitable ended in a dismissal with prejudice.  The rather lengthy order is here.

The court agreed with Teixeira almost uniformly, holding that the City of Inglewood cannot assert a copyright interest in its videos.  The question of whether a state (or its political subdivisions) can establish a copyright is a function of state law, and California has not affirmatively granted such a right to its cities.  Finding itself bound by a California state case, the court rejected Inglewood's arguments (the Supremacy Clause commands that all things be copyrightable!) as "unpersuasive" and "wholly without support."  Even if they were protected by copyright, "given the barely creative nature of the City Council Videos, and their informational purpose, they enjoy very narrow copyright protection."

The court, perhaps sensing that Inglewood might, in filing an appeal, drag the case out over the question of whether a copyright interest exists at all, proceeded to a Fair Use analysis, and found that every factor of a Fair Use determination weighed in Teixeira's favor:

A review of the videos is sufficient for the Court to rule that the Teixeira Videos are protected by the fair use doctrine as a matter of law. The Teixeira Videos use brief portions of the larger works in order to comment on, and criticize the political activities of the City Council and its members. He uses carefully chosen portions specifically for the purposes of exercising his First Amendment rights, and in doing so, substantially transforms the purpose and content of the City Council Videos. […]

The City’s contention that Teixeira is “simply republishing untransformed, copies of the Copyrighted works, and free-riding on the City’s expenses” is plainly incorrect on even the most cursory review of the Teixeira videos.  […]  No person wishing to find out what occurred during a lengthy City Council meeting would be satisfied with viewing any of the Teixeira Videos.

In the end, it cost Inglewood's taxpayers a pretty penny and the number of people who saw Teixeira's videos increased by a factor of five.  And it may cost them more: Teixeira's pro bono counsel has hinted that they will seek reimbursement of their attorney's fees.  That could come either through the Copyright Act itself (which Eugene Volokh believes weighs in favor of an award of fees), or through Rule 11, which requires filings to be "well grounded in fact and […] warranted by existing law or a good faith argument for the extension, modification, or reversal of existing law, and that […] not interposed for any improper purpose, such as to harass" and certainly applies to baseless copyright suits.  If the complaint doesn't qualify, Inglewood's incoherent opposition to the motion to dismiss — which argued that Inglewood was actually protecting free speech by suing its critic — is fertile soil for Rule 11 sanctions.

And perhaps it won't be Inglewood's taxpayers who wind up footing the bill, and the politicos who green-lit this dip into the city treasury might wind up paying a political cost.  Criticism was widespread: the Los Angeles Times spent ink covering the story and its editorial board hinted that Mayor Butts should resign if he suffered from acute thinnius skinnius, and suit was criticized by Eugene Volokh, the Annenberg Media Center, the First Amendment Coalition, TechDirt, CityWatchLA, the National Coalition Against Censorship, and so forth.

I do hope that Teixeira, ably represented by pro bono counsel from Davis Wright Tremaine, Dan Laidman, seeks his legal fees.  Inglewood's lawsuit was quite clearly frivolous and designed to harass a critic into silence.  In the absence of lawyers willing to take the risk that they might never be paid for their efforts, Inglewood's efforts might have been successful.  And although it's unlikely — Mayor Butts won his last election by a wide margin — the elected officials who pursued this action should pay a price as well.

Edit: As an example of how articulate I am, I used the word "copywritten" in this post.  I've replaced it with a word that is probably also wrong.  As penance for my sins, I will not subject anyone to my bad Blog Posts for a month and a half.  Thankfully, I will also credit myself time previously served.

Update (9/3/15):  Teixeira is now seeking $128,000 in legal fees under the Copyright Act (17 U.S.C. § 505), which provides for attorney's fees at the court's discretion.  Given that the court apparently stated its belief that the City of Inglewood was "just flatly wasting my time" in dragging the matter out, and was unequivocal in finding that the videos were a fair use, odds are pretty high that there will be an award.

Update (10/8/15):  Teixeira has been awarded $117,741 in attorneys' fees, with the court finding that Inglewood's claims were "objectively unreasonable" and that the city's position that it could hold a protectable copyright in its videos "has been and remains simply wrong [….] The nature and purpose of Defendant’s videos should have given the City at least some pause and prompted it to conduct further research into the merits of its claims."  Indeed, Inglewood's "most plausible purpose [in bringing the suit] was to stifle Defendant's political speech after he harshly criticized the City's elected officials."

Last 5 posts by Adam Steinbaugh


  1. Craig says

    Nice article, but when you wrote "copywritten" you were looking for "copyrighted". Copyright, as I'm sure you know, relates to the "right to copy" and not to "writing copies", so "copywritten" is obviously wrong.

  2. says

    That sounds familiar.

    Back in 2007, I fought our local public access station for the right to post newsworthy clips from videos of city council meetings on my community news site. They claimed copyright. It was a little trickier than the Inglewood case, because they were a private entity using public money to produce a public record. The station manager's husband was their attorney, and I didn't have access to a free attorney myself.

    I didn't have the resources for a direct attack, but I was able to get the county to put their license up for a competitive bid.

  3. says

    Thank you, thank you Mr. Steinbaugh for your diligent attention to this case, your supportive articles and your detailed summary. Publications like yours around the country have universally condemned the Inglewood City Council's waste of tax-payer dollars to stifle Free Speech. Hopefully, this has greatly decreased the likelihood that Mayor James T. Butts Jr., and other egotistical politicians, will ever again try to self-servingly use their own constituent's tax dollars to intimidate and harass those same constituents. Thank you again.

  4. NickM says

    It's Inglewood. It makes the movie Chinatown look like Pollyanna. They reelected Ed Vincent as Mayor after a court found him to have personally committed election fraud. Roosevelt Dorn went from Judge to Mayor to convicted criminal (public corruption).
    Now that the Rams will be coming, the city council will have a lot more money to waste on harassing critics. Expect to be writing a bunch more posts about absurd lawsuits they file.

  5. ZarroTsu says

    Step 1) Purchase a city.
    Step 2) Throw public money at the most mundane and easily ignored things.
    Step 3) ???
    Step 4) Pr– Actually I don't know where I was going with this. Hm.

  6. Carl says

    Indeed, the Court can scarcely conceive of works that are more appropriately protected by the fair use doctrine and § 107 than the Teixeira Videos.


  7. SirWired says

    Just curious as to why the defense did not bring about an anti-SLAPP action? I'm sure it's obvious to a lawyer, but it's not obvious to me.

  8. barry says

    Also, for the council to claim copyright, wouldn't the individual councillors, and anyone who spoke at the meeting, have had to assign the rights to their 'works' to the council?

  9. Vince Clortho says

    @SirWired anti-SLAPP doesn't apply to copyright infringement cases, it's more designed to defend against bogus defamation claims and such.

  10. says


    There's no federal anti-SLAPP statute yet. The California anti-SLAPP statute is a state statute that only applies to state causes of action, not to a federal cause of action like copyright infringement.

  11. Fasolt says

    If you haven't been following the career of Kirby Delauter, world renowned First Amendment challenged Frederick County Councilman, here's a link to his latest hissy fit.

    I wondered why a person of his, ahem, abilities would want to be a public servant. Here, I believe, is the reason. From the article linked above:

    Council Vice President M.C. Keegan-Ayer said that if Delauter assumed, when he was running for County Council in 2014, that the county would allow him to win bids under the new form of charter government, he made a gamble.

    “And unfortunately, he lost on this one,” she said.

    What a tool Kirby Delauter is. I call bullshit on his "I have to have the money" statement. The county hasn't awarded his company a bid since he took office under the previous form of government in 2010, the reporter of the story pointed out. He wasn't getting county money before. Why can't he donate now?

  12. Mikee says

    I hear so often that local government is preferred over federal government because locals know how to govern the lives of other local people. In truth, local government is just as corrupt and disgusting as any other level of government. Absolute power may corrupt absolutely, but even a small, minor amount of power will corrupt in a small, minor way.

  13. Leo Marvin says

    Lawsuits like this one will have their day when President Trump makes America great again. How do I know? Because Mr. Trump has copywritten ☻ "Make America Great Again." Or so he apparently believes:

    “My theme is ‘make American great again.’ I’ve even copyrighted it, can you believe it? Nobody else can use it,” he said. “At the beginning, they started using it. And I said you can’t use it — it’s copyright. I can’t believe I got the copyright on that one, but I guess I have a good lawyer, right? That’s what I do.”

    Maybe Mayor Butts just needs a better lawyer. Popehat signal?

  14. En Passant says

    Inglewood, CA city fathers are still amateur hour. As Hunter Thompson said, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." To become real pros they need to take lessons from nearby Bell, CA, only a few miles away.

    They too, can aspire to seven figure salaries, buddies on the city payroll to share in those salaries, state AG investigations, FBI investigations, arrests for misappropriation of funds, the whole magilla.

    They just need to get their priorities straight.

  15. Brian Z says

    I'm not sure if we need to pile on Delauter (yup, what he said was indefensible, but whatever) in a national forum, but after reading the small-ball antics in the Frederick News-Post, contrary to Mikee's sentitment, I am reminded why we do prefer local government.

    From the Frederick News-Post:

    And Shreve doesn't know whether to blame Gardner for his missing key, though he insists someone took it from his mailbox. However, he didn't appreciate her email stating that she understood he had lost his key and asking him to pay the $10 fee for a new one, as county policy requires. The councilman fired back that Gardner wasn't getting his point.

    We don't like local politicians because they are incorruptible, we like them because they scrap over a $10 missing key fee rather than a $10 billion appropriations bill.

  16. Mikee says

    RE: Brian Z

    You think the fact that they fight over $10 means they wouldn't fight over $10,000,000,000 if given the chance? I think that's evidence of the opposite. The only reason they're not fighting over how to spend $10 billion is because there aren't enough people that trust them enough with the $10 billion to fight over.

    And is that the same Billy Shreve of the Frederick County Council that refuses to vote on any budget matters until taxpayer funds are used to hire someone to explain to Billy how the budget works? Here's some of my favorite quotes he's made recently:

    "I will abstain from any vote if I think we should have separate representation,"

    And when the rest of the council expressed reservations about hiring more people into the government whose jobs would consist of solely explaining basic principles of governance to the council, his response was:

    "You're treating this $550 million operation like it's a Girl Scout cookie sale,"

    Amazing, isn't it? Arguing over $10 has suddenly turned into arguing over $550 million, and the guy you like wants to spend thousands of taxpayer dollars hiring people to explain how budgets work, but balks over paying ten bucks of his own to replace a key that he lost.

    You've done absolutely nothing to show anything 'contrary' to what I said, in fact, you appear to have gone well out of your way to provide evidence contrary to your own claims. I wanted to go into lots of detail about how 4 of the last 7 governors of Illinois are in prison, or that at least four former and current Attorneys general around the country are facing criminal charges, but now I can just casually mention them and relax because you've proven my case for me. Thanks, Brian. :)

  17. David C says

    Also, for the council to claim copyright, wouldn't the individual councillors, and anyone who spoke at the meeting, have had to assign the rights to their 'works' to the council?

    I think they were claiming copyright on the recording itself, not on what was in the recording. Sort of like how you can't copyright a tree, but if you go to the forest and videotape the tree you can still claim copyright on that video.

  18. Brian Z says


    Whoa, I was drawing what I thought was a light-hearted contrast in our reactions using the $10 figure I read in the article, not saying that you were wrong about the nature of politicians. Furthermore you are right to draw a distinction between a politician's own money and public money.

    But in terms of generalities and feelings: corrupt local politicians fight over smaller pools of money. This makes me feel more comfortable than corrupt national politicians fighting over larger amounts of money. That's all I was trying to say. Sorry if you felt personally attacked.

    H'okay, we might even have deeper philosophical differences too. So I don't live in Maryland, and I've spent an aggregate 25 minutes browsing through various Frederick News-Post articles, the only source I consulted. Seems like they're doing some tough reporting. Good for them. If I lived there, I'd be motivated to seek more information and dig deeper, but much of the wranglings seem like normal governance and politics.

    It seems the county employs 2000 people and has a $550 million dollar budget (about $275,000 per head [not all salary, or course], seems about right). Shreve asserts that part of his job as a councilman is acting as a check on the executive. He wants to use public money to pay for some additional staff council staff and some outside budgetary analysis. That seems legit. Others disagree that some of those measures are necessary. Also legit. I'm sure they can figure it out. I'm not local and this doesn't seem to me to be egregious, so I won't weigh-in any further.

  19. Mikee says

    RE: Brian Z

    I didn't feel attacked. I felt as though my claim was under attack, because you specifically used the word 'contrary' so I felt inclined to defend my position further. But I'm able to let people attack my opinions without taking it personal, in fact, I like it. The adversarial nature of intellectual debate is one of the easiest ways for me to learn, and I thought you were in for some kind of debate because of the 'contrary' tone of your comment. I apologize if you felt as though I attacked you, that wasn't my intent.

    I don't live in Maryland either, I live in one of the states I'd planned on discussing because anti-corruption officials have brought charges against our last two AG's (Shurtleff and Swallow) in the same scandal that involves sleazy businessmen, a few industries that exist solely to scam citizens out of their earnings (website coaching, subprime lenders, ponzi schemes), and enough bribes to fill a swimming pool.

    But in my opinion, the only difference between politicians that fight over $10, $550m, or $10b is the money. The level of corruption, the level of greed, the level of dishonesty, the lack of integrity, everything about the people is exactly the same. The money is immaterial to me, the problem is the people with power don't have enough checks and balances placed on them to prevent abuses of power. I don't think that corrupt people go into politics, I think anyone given any kind of power at any level of life (not just government) risks becoming corrupt.

    Digging a little deeper into Shreve's motivations from a clearly biased blog source, apparently his announcement that he would no longer vote on budget matters until the county paid for someone to explain the budget to him came shortly after the county had eliminated the position and a personal friend of Shreve lost their job.

    I just don't see much difference between Shreve, Inglewood, DeLay or Watergate. There's evidence to show that the federal government has reached too far (Popehat has had plenty of examples of prosecutors stretching the law beyond reason), and there's probably just as much evidence showing that the states can't be trusted to ensure the citizens rights are protected.

  20. barry says

    @David C

    but if you go to the forest and videotape the tree you can still claim copyright on that video.

    But if the tree is singing 'Happy Birthday' it becomes more complicated. Claiming copyright and paying the registration fee isn't quite enough to make it valid.

    In this story the court decided that even if the Council did own copyright on the videos under federal law, it could not enforce them because of state laws. My question was about the original copyright claim. Even without the state laws, wouldn't the Council's copyright claim still be invalid?

    Speeches and addresses are considered copyrightable works. When they (and maps and computer programs etc) are made by employees as part of their employment, it seems reasonable for the employer to own them. But for elected officials and members of the public the relationship is different. Unless copyright assignment is part of the oath of office, and a condition for participating in the meeting for the public, how can the council claim to own them?

    This story reminded me of Florida Man a few years ago registering a business to sell plots of land on the moon. When challenged on his ownership of the moon, he insisted that paying the business registration fee to the government and not having the application rejected meant that he did.

  21. Fasolt says

    @Brian Z:

    I'm not sure if we need to pile on Delauter (yup, what he said was indefensible, but whatever) in a national forum, …

    It's far too late for that. Kirby Delauter went world-wide. When the BBC reports on your cartoonish level of incompetence, you're an ignorant ass of the highest level. Search for his name and look at the wide variety of media outlets that picked up Kirby Delauter's first childish meltdown.

  22. Brian Z says

    Kirby Delauter did something that was childish and ignorant. Then…

    He didn't:
    have his lawyer send threatening letters
    have anyone arrested
    follow through on his threat to sue (hey, that's this one!)

    He did:
    apologize and acknowledge he was wrong

    That's why I said "whatever." I apologize for my part in sidetracking the discussion of Adam's report on the Inglewood decision, which I found fascinating. Aside from the very initial "city official doesn't like criticism" bit, I don't think the Delauter stuff is relevant, and I certainly don't think Delauter's "latest hijinx" are either.

  23. Brian Z says


    "But if the tree is singing 'Happy Birthday' it becomes more complicated."

    Perhaps more complicated, but it doesn't invalidate your copyright. You now have rights to your recording, and Happy Birthday's owner has rights to performance of the song.

    If someone used the video without any permission whatsoever, both you and the Happy Birthday people could sue for infringement–of different works.

    If you wanted to make some money off your work, whoever bought the rights to your recording wouldn't be able to do much with it until they also secured the rights to use the Happy Birthday song. Flip-scenario. If someone obtained a copy of your video and also owns the rights to Happy Birthday, they still need to secure your permission to use your recording.

    In this case, I think the city agreed that they didn't have copyright of the subject-matter (i.e. the words) because it was a public meeting, but they were asserting a copyright on the recording itself (which the court rejected they had a right to do, but for different legal reasons). I think.

    It's like how a wedding photographer can enforce the copyright for pictures he takes at your wedding. Your moments; you're the content–he doesn't have copyright on that. But he does have copyright on the way that he captured those moments on film (unless you've paid him to transfer the copyright "back" to you).

  24. albert says

    "…“My theme is ‘make American great again.’ I’ve even copyrighted it, can you believe it? Nobody else can use it,” he said. “At the beginning, they started using it. And I said you can’t use it — it’s copyright. I can’t believe I got the copyright on that one, but I guess I have a good lawyer, right? That’s what I do.”…" – Trump.

    I can't believe it either. It sounds like BS. To copyright a simple phrase like ‘make American great again.’? I doubt that's possible. The proper procedure is to _trademark_ that phrase, with regards to a political campaign. Is that what the Trumpster is talking about?

    . .. . .. o

  25. barry says

    @Brian Z
    Thankyou for the explanation. That made sense, although I think there's something wrong with it. Not that you aren't probably right about how it works, just that I still don't like something about how it works.

    In the Inglewood case, the ideal would be if the videos were created in the public domain, but apparently that can't happen either. So I suppose being created with an unenforceable copyright is a fair compromise.

  26. Brian Z says

    [T]he ideal would be if the videos were created in the public domain….

    Right. I saw it as confusing too, so in my explanation, I was trying to echo what the court said. My understanding: the court isn't interested in differentiating between 'no copyright' and 'a copyright that you can't enforce.' I'm not an expert, so there may be a crucial legal turn of phrase I'm missing in all of this.

    Here's the part from the decision I'm looking at (this paragraph refers to the County of Santa Clara court's previous decision, bold emphasis mine):

    … While the City may be correct that California law cannot prevent the creation and lodging of a copyright in an entity contrary to federal law, the Court does not understand the County of Santa Clara court to be doing that. It is true that the court was perhaps inartful in its precise choice of language. However, that does not alter what this Court sees as the court’s ultimate holding, 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.

    Like you, my quick reaction is that it would be better if states used "created in the public domain" language just like the feds, rather than "unenforceable" language. But maybe there's a legal reason/strategy for doing it the California way.

  27. Matt Schruers says

    Good post.

    Apropos of nothing except Ken White's comment above that state anti-SLAPPs don't apply to copyright, we may yet find out that anti-SLAPP actions *can* in fact be brought against copyright claims, if thosee claims are under state copyright law. (A bizarre wrinkle in Title 17 leaves sound recordings fixed before Feb. 15, 1972 to be governed by state, not federal law.)

    This issue is presently before the 9th Circuit in Flo & Eddie Inc. v. Pandora. The CD Cal essentially concluded that California's anti-SLAPP statute could (in theory) be invoked against a claim under California's state-level protection for pre-72 sound recordings– although it ultimately still sided with the plaintiff on the likelihood of success. An appeal is pending.

  28. Steve says

    So why isn't this "Joan Esty" lawyer, who abused process by filing this frivolous POS lawsuit, and then kept at it…why isn't she reported to the bar? Because we can get attorneys fees and/or punishment from the City but not from the attorney who advised the City?

  29. Annie Ominous says

    The Federal Judge Ordered the City of Inglewood to pay the defendant's attorney's fees to the tune of $117,000. So, the "copyright troll" of an attorney they hired cost the city more than 50K.