Google must remove from YouTube a polarizing anti-Muslim film that incited international demonstrations, as leaving it online would infringe on the rights of an actress who was coerced into starring in the movie, a split federal court ruled Wednesday.
Actress Cindy Lee Garcia argued that she had not signed a release regarding her appearance in “Innocence of Muslims.” Garcia filed suit, claiming that she therefore owned a copyright in her performance and that when she sent a takedown notice to YouTube (which is owned by Google) the site was legally compelled to remove the video.
The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in California agreed, issuing a 2-1 decision that rejected Google’s argument that removing the video would violate the company’s rights under the First Amendment to the US Constitution.
The 14-minute “Innocence of Muslims” was first uploaded to YouTube on July 1, 2012. The clip, which takes on the format of a movie trailer, had a strong anti-Islamic bent, depicting Muslims committing terrible crimes against Christians and featuring cartoonish images of the prophet Muhammad (Islam forbids any depictions) as a child molester and womanizer, among other offensive scenes.
The reception to the video was swift and fierce, with violent protests first breaking out in Egypt and then spreading to other nations in the Arab and Muslim worlds in September and October of 2012. Over 50 people were killed in the demonstrations and hundreds more were injured, with the Obama administration first claiming that the protests were the cause of the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. A Pakistani official even offered a bounty on the life of the filmmaker.
The actors who appeared in the short film were also among those who spoke out against it. Garcia, who has been the subject of death threats, said in court she was paid $500 to appear in a film called “Desert Warrior” by director Mark Basseley Youssef, but to her knowledge the movie was never completed.
It was only after “Innocence of Muslims” had appeared that Garcia and independent experts alike declared that the anti-Islamic rhetoric that made the film so controversial had been added in post-production.
The actress claimed that YouTube’s worldwide popularity meant the movie could be viewed by millions of people everywhere. Google’s defense hinged on the idea that even though the film has been identified as offensive, YouTube’s right to the freedom of speech meant that the courts could not intervene. That was beside the point, the appeals court ruled, the issue that was really at hand was copyright.
“This is a troubling case,” wrote Chief Judge Alex Kozinski. “Garcia was duped into providing an artistic performance that was used in a way she never could have foreseen.”
Wednesday’s ruling is likely not the final say on the matter, but it does overturn a ruling from a lower court that sided with Google.
Prior rulings have made it clear that the law allows an actor to have minimal control over how their performance is ultimately used. An individual would not be allowed to file suit against a movie because they don’t approve of the final edit, Kozinski wrote, but “even a broad implied license isn’t unlimited.”
“The problem isn’t that ‘Innocence of Muslims’ is not an Arabian adventure movie: it’s that the film isn’t intended to entertain at all,” the judge explained. “The film differs so radically from anything Garcia could have imagined when she was cast that it can’t possibly be authorized by any implied license she granted.”
The court gave Google 24 hours to remove all copies of the film and ordered the company to take reasonable measures to prohibit the clip from being uploaded again.