Not according to one federal judge in California. In City of Inglewood v. Joseph Teixeira, et. al., No. 2:15-cv-01815 (C.D. Ca. Aug. 20, 2015), United Stated District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald found that California state law bars the city from claiming copyright over the public-access footage of city council meetings and granted the defendant's motion to dismiss.
In Teixeira, the City of Inglewood filed a lawsuit against Joseph Teixeira. Teixeira used footage from the city council meetings to make his own videos that criticized the city and its elected officials. Teixeira posted his videos to You Tube. The city alleged claims of copyright infringement based on Teixeira's use of the public-access footage in his videos.
Teixeira filed a motion to dismiss the city's complaint, and argued that (1) "California law bars the City from claiming and asserting a copyright claim in the videos of its City Council meetings"; and (2) "even if the City had an enforceable copyright interest in the videos, [his videos] fall squarely within the fair use protections of § 107 of the Copyright Act." The Court agreed with both arguments.
First, the Court explained that California's Public Records Act, Cal. Gov. Code § 6250 et. seq., "establishes a strong presumption in favor of public access to public materials and places significant limits on how public entities may restrict access to such materials."
The Court also relied on County of Santa Clara v. Superior Court, 170 Cal. App. 4th 1301, 89 Cal. Rptr. 3d 374 (2009), "[t]he only published authority on the question of the ability of California public entities to assert copyright over works they produce." In County of Santa Clara, the court found that, save for a few limited exceptions, "a California public entity may not claim copyright protection for a work it has created even if it falls within the scope of federal copyright protection." The Court found that none of the exceptions were applicable and the city may not assert a copyright claim in its council videos.
Second, the Court also found that, even if the videos were copyrightable, this is a "quintessential" case of fair use: "The videos identified in the Complaint as infringing are quintessential transformative works for the purpose of criticism and commentary on matters of public concern." The Court found that each statutory factor included in section 107 of the Copyright Act favors a finding of fair use.
Teixeira is significant because it sends a message to all government entities that it cannot hide behind intellectual property laws to circumvent the public's Fist Amendment right to comment on matters of political interest or public concern.