A confrontation Tuesday between a police sergeant and member of the public didn’t start out unusually. James Burch, policy director of the Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP), was standing outside the Alameda Courthouse in Oakland, California when an officer approached him and asked him to move a banner. As the two argued, the sergeant noticed he was being filmed. Then, he pulled out his phone and started playing “Blank Space” by Taylor Swift — in an apparent play to exploit copyright takedowns and keep the video off social media.
“You can record all you want,” he said, according to a video obtained by The Verge. “I just know it can’t be posted to YouTube.”
Bystanders have a First Amendment right to record police, but police officers have allegedly tried to exploit copyright law to prevent people from sharing those videos, playing music that could trigger a takedown notice. While playing music in the background of a video isn’t necessarily against YouTube’s rules, it can set off the company’s automatic takedown system.
In February, activist Sennett Devermont documented a Beverly Hills officer blasting Sublime’s “Santeria” on his phone after being asked questions, apparently to make the video more difficult to post online. Devermont told Vice that this wasn’t an isolated incident, sharing an earlier video where a different officer used the same tactic with a Beatles song.
In both cases, though, the officer didn’t directly admit to the practice. The Beverly Hills Police Department said playing music while answering questions is “not a procedure that has been recommended by Beverly Hills Police command staff” and that the videos were “currently under review.”
Now, there is explicit evidence of a police officer admitting to playing a popular song in order to keep a video off of YouTube.
Burch was at the courthouse on June 29th to support the family of Steven Taylor, who was killed by San Leandro police officer Jason Fletcher while having a mental health crisis at Walmart. (Fletcher was later charged with felony manslaughter.) He was listening to the pre-trial hearing with members of the Justice 4 Steven Taylor campaign when an officer approached him and asked him to move a banner.
“You’re saying there’s a genuine concern we have that someone’s going to trip on this banner?“ Burch asked, according to the video. “You can’t keep twisting this...” the sergeant responded.
“This is as triggering as a situation can be for the family,” Burch tells The Verge. “In our opinion a cop murdered their brother. Now we have cops marching out here telling us what to do? That is infuriating.”
When the sergeant whipped out his phone and started playing Taylor Swift, Burch was taken aback. “Are we having a dance party now?” he asked. “No, sir,” the sergeant said. “Are you playing pop music to drown out the conversation?” another APTP member asked. “No,” the sergeant responded. “He doesn’t want you recording so he’s playing music in the back,” Burch said. On camera, the officer said recording was fine — but posting it online wouldn’t be.
“The fact that these members of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department would go to such lengths to deny us the ability to publicize their actions speaks volumes to how they perceive their relationship with the People of Oakland,” Burch said in a statement.
Police aren’t the only ones interested in exploiting online copyright systems. In 2019, one Twitter user posted a “tip” for deplatforming fascists by playing music at rallies, then reporting videos of it when they were posted online. Copyright reform advocate Cory Doctorow called the idea a “clever hack,” but he called out its potential for abuse by other groups, specifically including police looking to avoid scrutiny online.
Social networks and copyright holders employ sometimes byzantine and often automated processes for detecting and removing copyrighted content. Users can appeal takedowns, but if they fail, receiving multiple strikes can limit an account’s monetization options or even get the user suspended. Meanwhile, automated systems can be overzealous at spotting supposed piracy, flagging even videos of white noise or public domain classical music. They can also fail to identify videos that do include copyrighted material but would likely be protected as legal fair use. That’s made the system ripe for abuse by scammers and other bad actors.
Videos like APTP’s don’t necessarily violate social media rules, but those rules aren’t very clear. A Facebook spokesperson told The Verge that the company’s restrictions take into consideration how much of the total video contains recorded music, the total number of songs in the video, and the length of individual songs in the video. In 2019, YouTube introduced a policy that discouraged copyright holders from claiming revenue on videos including brief or “unintentional” music clips, although it said that could temporarily lead to more blocked videos. Google declined to comment on how its policies would cover the Oakland video, instead pointing The Verge to a page on how it protects copyrighted content.
To Burch, the officer’s attempt to trigger a copyright takedown underlines why it’s important to film police interactions in the first place. “We know these agencies seek to avoid accountably,” he says. “It’s our job to be prepared in any situation to do the best we can to make sure the people in our community stay safe.”
The Alameda County Sheriff’s Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Verge.