Dancing Toddler and the Future of Art in America

So why would a video of a mildly overweight toddler dancing badly receive 518,448 views on YouTube? It immediately comes to mind why a toddler dancing very well might be popular. It immediately comes to mind why a spectacularly cute toddler dancing badly might be popular. I wish this were not the case, but it also immediately comes to mind why a grotesquely overweight toddler dancing badly would make for a popular YouTube video. No, this toddler is not related to any star of stage or screen either.

The answer is that the video is controversial. The child’s mother Stephanie Lenz videotaped her kid attempting to dance to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” which was playing on a nearby boombox. Universal Music Group, which owns the copyright for that portion of Prince’s catalog asked YouTube to take the video down because “Let’s Go Crazy” could clearly be heard on it and they felt this infringed on their copyright. YouTube took the video down and that would have been the end of it, except the EFF took on the mom’s case

So Stephanie Lenz and the Electronic Frontier Foundation sued Universal for wrongly asking that the video be taken down. Today, Ars Technica, a site about the “art of technology”, posted the latest in a whole series of interesting articles on the case and its implications for all video makers. The short version of what went down is that Universal defended by claiming the EFF was using the court system to bully them out of their rights and using meritless lawsuits to further their own agenda. This is ironic for so many reasons, I don’t even know how to start to enumerate them, so I won’t. The way everything shook out, judges determined that, yes, the EFF can bring a suit like this; yes, the video could be reposted to YouTube; yes, Universal acted in good faith when asking that the video be removed; and, yes, it is a murky area of the law where fair use is concerned.

Comments on the YouTube dancing toddler repost seem to illustrate that many YouTube users have no idea who Prince or the Artist Formerly Known As Prince are. They also indicate that Universal acted with Prince’s approval and support. Given that, years ago, Prince changed his name to a pretty much incomprehensible symbol and wrote slave on his face because he hated his label so much, it is also ironic if it is true that the music label here was acting with his full agreement.

But Prince has not done so well without a music label. His allegedly official 3112 web site has been dark since June 2007. Prince was a huge artist who believed the web would take power away from the evil record companies and put it back in the hands of the artists where it belongs. Truthfully, the changing cultural landscape has moved much power from the hands of powerful media conglomerate corporations like Viacomm and Universal and transferred it to the hands of newer powerful media conglomerate corporations like Google and Live Nation. A lot of people hate music labels and the music industry, partly because of the efforts of musicians like Prince to expose their wicked ways, but most do not seem to notice that they are exchanging one master for another one with a different business model. Although we have certainly not traded slavery for freedom, it could still be a better and more enjoyable new business model for all concerned. Whether this is the dawning of an awesome new renaissance in human existence or a new dark ages remains to be seen.

As a society, we are all struggling with how to handle the explosion of amateur media and how to deal with what this all means for everything from copyright to the very existence of creative professionals. As a media creator who wants to do the right thing, I am looking forward to legal clarifications on what constitutes fair use. Fair use is very clearly defined in written works and I know it inside-out there, but, when it comes to something like digitally distributed video, the answers are harder to come by. If there is a song playing in the background at a nightclub where Forrest Black and I are shooting still photography and someone like say Michelle Aston videotapes it, do we have to dub something else over the music or is the music incidental, serendipitous, and no replacement for the original and thus just fine? Obviously, I am not asking idly. I have legal counsel out the wazoo and I don’t know the answer on this sort of thing. I know there are times when people repurpose my photographs into tribute videos and I’m not sure they have the right to do so, but I don’t ask them to stop either. I do wish they would all be good about giving credit to their sources though. If there are people on YouTube who had never heard of Prince, a popular toddler video could have made at least a few dozen of Stephanie Lentz’s friends more familiar with the Artist. I’m not sure of the legalities on some of this because nobody knows the answers on those laws until more precedents have been set. I’m honestly a little fuzzy on what I feel would be right and what would be wrong on some of these issues.

I hope that, however it shakes out, our culture is a place where creativity and artistic pursuits are more encouraged and not less. I can’t figure out if the EFF or Stephanie Lentz got any money out of this long lawsuit or just the right to repost the video of toddler Holden dancing. I’m not really a toddler person, so I hope some of you find him adorable and her creative contribution to society has a positive impact.


Posted by on July 21, 2008. Filed under Blue Blood. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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