Does Cellphone Video Belong to the Public?

August 3, 2016


As amateur cellphone video increasingly captures major news events, who should control and profit from such clips?

As Fortune reported on July 18, a company called ViralHog is among a handful of startups that pay people for videos that could attract buzz, such as cellphone footage of the deadly sniper attack on Dallas police officers on July 7. The company then licenses the clips to news organizations, with a percentage going to the videographer.

Aside from the ethics of seeking profit from tragedy, the issue of who controls such videos raises questions about how copyright law applies to events that become part of public memory. Under the fair use doctrine, copyrighted material can be used without permission for the purposes of commentary and criticism, such as citing passages of a novel in a book review.

However, according to Pamela Samuelson, a professor of intellectual property law at the University of California at Berkeley and an authority on fair use, the law is ambiguous when it comes to news events. In the case of the Dallas sniper shootings or the recent police killing of a Minnesota motorist whose girlfriend recorded and narrated his death on Facebook Live, Samuelson says there is an argument in favor of using those clips under the fair use law.

Such cellphone videos are not shot for commercial purposes, and “we’re not watching for the entertainment value,” she says. “It’s about the importance of documentation,” which makes such incidents part of our collective national memory.

Greg Beaubien

Greg Beaubien is a frequent contributor to PRSA’s publications.


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