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Court lifts YouTube ban on controversial film Innocence of Muslims

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YouTube can host the short film Innocence of Muslims after all, according to a ruling made today by the Ninth Circuit and first reported by Reuters. Innocence of Muslims — a "trailer" for a low-budget film mocking the prophet Muhammad — sparked protests in the Islamic world, and YouTube even blocked it in some countries. But that's not why a US court ordered the service to take down the video early last year. That was the result of a disgruntled actor and a controversial copyright decision that judges now say infringed on Google's First Amendment rights. Today, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is reversing that decision.

Cindy Lee Garcia was one of several actors who say they were tricked into appearing in Innocence of Muslims, hired under the pretense that the director was creating a generic sword-and-sandals film instead of propaganda. The film's extreme anti-Islamic sentiments led an Egyptian cleric to call for the death of anyone associated with its production. As a result, Garcia and other members of the cast received death threats, despite being unaware of the film's content during the production process. Garcia sued to have the video suppressed, arguing that she owned the copyright on her short appearance in the film. Despite qualms, a court granted her a temporary injunction, ordering Google to take down the video.

"The mandatory injunction censored and suppressed a politically significant film."

Google argued that this set a dangerous precedent for both copyright and freedom of speech. Garcia had a very small part in the film's creation, and letting her suppress the final product could give anyone involved in a production control over it. Eventually, the Ninth Circuit court re-examined the case and reversed the decision, even expressing frustration that the decision had taken this long. "The unconscionable result is that our court allowed an infringement of First Amendment rights to remain in effect for 15 months before we finally issued our opinion," wrote one.

Another pointed out that however offensive the film, the lawsuit stopped people from seeing something that had become newsworthy. "The takedown order was unwarranted and incorrect as a matter of law," wrote Judge Margaret McKeown. "It also gave short shrift to the First Amendment values at stake. The mandatory injunction censored and suppressed a politically significant film — based upon a dubious and unprecedented theory of copyright. In so doing, the panel deprived the public of the ability to view firsthand, and judge for themselves, a film at the center of an international uproar." This doesn't definitively close the case, but the tide, it seems, has turned in favor of Google.