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A police officer attempted to stop activists from uploading a video of him at a Black Lives Matter rally.

A police officer in Oakland, California played a song by Taylor Swift on his phone in an attempt to stop Black Lives Matter protesters from sharing footage of him on June 29, 2021. (Photo: Anti-Police Terror Project/screenshot)

Cop's Effort to Censor Witness Video With Copyrighted Taylor Swift Song Backfires

"In this video, the social justice, human rights, and civil liberties harms of overzealous copyright enforcement could not be more glaring: copyright censorship enables other forms of censorship."

Julia Conley

A police officer's attempt to censor Black Lives Matter activists at an Oakland protest backfired Thursday, with a video of the officer's interaction with organizers going viral precisely because of his attempt to prevent them from uploading the video to YouTube by invoking copyright law and playing a pop song.

"People have the right to film the police, and efforts by the police to infringe on this right are unconstitutional." —Chessie Thacher, ACLU Northern California

After ordering organizers with the Anti-Police Terror Project to remove a banner from the steps of the Alameda County Courthouse, Sgt. David Shelby began playing Taylor Swift's song "Blank Space" on his cell phone, at first confusing the demonstrators.
"Are we having a dance party now?" asked activist James Burch, whose group was demonstrating at the pre-trial hearing of a former police officer who killed a Black man, Steven Taylor, at a Walmart last year. Shelby eventually told him he was playing the song so that copyright-detection software used by YouTube would block the video Burch's fellow organizer was filming from being uploaded. 
"You can record all you want. I just know it can't be posted to YouTube," Shelby said, later reiterating, "I'm playing my music so that you can't post on YouTube."
The Anti-Police Terror Project did manage to share the video on YouTube, leading nearly 200,000 people to view the footage at press time.
The officer's blatant attempt to keep Burch from publicizing his encounter with law enforcement is only the latest example of copyright restrictions being used "as a tool for censorship and harm," said the digital rights group Fight for the Future. 
"Restrictive copyright laws and the censorship regimes used to enforce them have always harmed human rights. This video of a police officer taking advantage of copyright laws to avoid accountability is the latest chilling example in a line of abuse that stretches back decades," said Lia Holland, the group's campaigns and communications director, pointing to voting systems company Diebold's attempt in 2003 to stop website administrators from posting its email correspondence.
"In this video, the social justice, human rights, and civil liberties harms of overzealous copyright enforcement could not be more glaring: copyright censorship enables other forms of censorship," Holland added.
Vice News reported in February that in two separate incidents in recent months, police officers in Beverly Hills played music during encounters with the public to prevent them from sharing footage of the encounters. 
"This does seem to be a trend right now," Chessie Thacher, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Northern California, told the Washington Post. "People have the right to film the police, and efforts by the police to infringe on this right are unconstitutional... So if they're using copyright laws to prevent people from exercising their right—and amplifying what they’re seeing—then that’s a real problem."
Holland noted that beyond Shelby's attempt to infringe on the Anti-Police Terror Project's First Amendment rights, his use of a Taylor Swift song added another layer of abuse to the incident, as recording executive Scooter Braun sold Swift's master recordings from her first six albums to investment firm Shamrock Capital without her consent. 
"Shamrock Capital, an investment firm notorious for denying Taylor Swift the rights to her own music, is abusing their power as a content monopoly at the expense of artists and frontline communities alike," Holland said. "This content monopoly's goal is to leverage the power of Big Tech to make a few extra bucks—not for artists, but for their investors. The U.S. must fundamentally reform our archaic and corrupt copyright system to put the interests of artists and the public first in the digital era." 
"The last thing we should be doing is giving copyright monopolies more power to abuse, and cops more tools to evade accountability," she added. 
According to the Post, the Alameda County Sheriff's Office referred the encounter at the courthouse to internal affairs officials for investigation, and a spokesperson said the agency does not "condone" Shelby's actions.
"This is not a good look for law enforcement," spokesperson Ray Kelly told the Post. 
Burch called the attempt by Shelby to prevent his group from recording their encounter "incredibly concerning," particularly amid the racial justice uprising that began after Darnella Frazier filmed George Floyd's killing by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin last year.
"After the murder of George Floyd, everyone understands why organizers and activists record our interactions with law enforcement," Burch told the Post.

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