How much should a copyright owner pay for improperly telling a Web site to remove content?

Stephanie Lenz got into trouble with Universal Music Group in 2007 after she posted a YouTube video of her toddler dancing to the Prince song "Let's Go Crazy." The label fired off a letter demanding removal of the clip and Youtube complied.

Lenz then teamed with online free-speech advocates at the Electronic Frontier Foundation to get a judge to declare that her video was a "fair use" of the song. She then sought damages against Universal, the world's biggest record company, for sending a meritless takedown request.

Universal fought back by raising affirmative defenses that Lenz had bad faith and unclean hands in pursuing damages. Now a California district court judge has rejected those arguments, granting partial summary judgment to Lenz and paving the way for Lenz to collect attorneys fees.

The case is important because it raises the question of whether a media company can be held liable for pursuing a takedown without a full consideration of fair use. The decision by the court last Thursday is very technical and examines damage claims under a statutory code that deals with liability when misrepresentations are made about infringing works online.

A preliminary read on the decision indicates that Lenz can recover legal fees associated with fighting the takedown, but not necessarily fees connected with the cost of pursuing Universal for damages in follow-up litigation. To really sock it to Universal, Lenz would have to make a claim under a code that awards fees at the court's discretion. To do that, she will likely need to show that Universal knowingly misrepresented its initial claim.

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