A California police officer played Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” in an attempt to prevent a Black Lives Matter activist from uploading a video to YouTube — in the belief that the platform’s copyright-detection system would block it.
It didn’t work.
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In fact, the video in question was not only shared successfully on YouTube, it has gone viral — garnering widespread attention because of the controversy.
On June 29, BLM protesters gathered at the Alameda Country courthouse in Oakland, Calif., before a pretrial hearing for Jason Fletcher, a former police officer charged with murdering Steven Taylor, a Black man, inside a Walmart store in 2020.
As captured on video, an officer from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office confronted one of the protestors, James Burch of the Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP), to demand Burch remove his group’s banner. Burch questioned why the banner needed to be moved — before the cop takes out his mobile phone and starts playing the Swift song.
Burch, confused, says, “Are we having a dance party now?” The officer eventually admits, “You can record all you want. I just know it can’t be posted to YouTube.” Later, the officer, identified as Sgt. David Shelby, reiterates to Burch, “I’m playing my music so that you can’t post on YouTube.”
The video, available at this link, has been viewed more than 170,000 times since it was shared Thursday.
Free-speech advocates decried the attempt by a law enforcement official to use copyright law — even though unsuccessful — to try to avoid public scrutiny and try to thwart Americans’ First Amendment rights.
“This video of a police officer taking advantage of copyright laws to avoid accountability is the latest chilling example in a line of abuse that stretches back decades,” Lia Holland, campaigns and communications director at digital-rights group Fight for the Future, said in a statement. “The U.S. must fundamentally reform our archaic and corrupt copyright system to put the interests of artists and the public first in the digital era. The last thing we should be doing is giving copyright monopolies more power to abuse, and cops more tools to evade accountability.”
Police have reportedly tried to exploit copyright-takedown rules to try to block videos from online services before. In February, according to a Vice News report, a Beverly Hills cop played Sublime’s “Santeria” as activist Sennett Devermont tried to film the encounter disputing a ticket he had been issued, evidently so that video of the conversation would be prevented from being livestreamed online. On a prior occasion, another BHPD officer blasted The Beatles’ “In My Life” as Devermont was recording video.
The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office has referred the incident to an internal affairs unit for investigation, the Washington Post reported.
The department does not have a policy about “whether you can play Taylor Swift or music in an attempt to censor YouTube content from a public encounter,” spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly said. However, he said, the sheriff’s office does not “condone” the actions of the deputy and added that “there is a code of conduct on how we should carry ourselves in public.”
YouTube’s automated Content ID copyright-flagging system looks for a match between a reference file (provided by a copyright holder) and a new video upload. If there’s a hit, YouTube applies a policy to track, monetize or block the video, based on the preference selected by the Content ID owner. According to YouTube, Content ID claims usually are “just to track or monetize the video, not to block it.”
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