By Sunshine Mugrabi


Following a week’s worth of controversy about her behavior, Fox Broadcasting ordered clips of Paula Abdul swaying, appearing intoxicated, and answering questions on TV news programs in a nonsensical way taken down from YouTube this week.


The move raises questions about where the line should be drawn between copyright infringement and outright censorship. It also shows how quickly an embarrassing piece of footage can become a viral sensation now that videos can be easily uploaded to the web.


“What Fox runs the risk of is using copyright law as a form of censorship,” said Van Baker, an analyst at Gartner Media Service.


Ms. Abdul, a judge on the wildly popular show American Idol on Fox, whose parent is News Corp., has insisted she doesn’t drink or take drugs. Last week, she told Jay Leno on The Tonight Show that her inability to answer questions during news interviews on several Fox affiliate stations was the result of a mix-up in satellite feeds.

‘Some people would say this is an overly aggressive use of the takedown procedure.’

 -James Nguyen,

  Foley & Lardner


"Well, there was a mistake. Alabama was in my ear and so was Seattle at the same time," said Ms. Abdul.


However, such damage control hasn’t stopped bloggers, TV pundits, and others from speculating that Ms. Abdul’s behavior is veering out of control. Meanwhile, the video of her appearance on the Seattle Fox affiliate attracted many viewings on YouTube before being pulled. (A new version has since been uploaded.)


YouTube did not immediately return a request for comment. Fox Broadcasting declined to be interviewed for this article.


Any violation of what is known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is grounds for removal of videos on YouTube, a division of Mountain View, California-based search giant Google. However, there are also “fair use” laws that allow some content—such as short clips or satirical depictions of celebrities—to be aired online.


Aggressive Takedowns

“Some people would say this is an overly aggressive use of the takedown procedure [allowed in the DMCA],” said James Nguyen, an attorney who specializes in entertainment and copyright law at the Los Angeles-based law firm Foley & Lardner. “They’re within their rights … but most of the major TV networks don’t ask you to take down their other clips.”


This is not the first time that the DMCA has been invoked to prevent embarrassing or unpleasant videos from being shown online. Mr. Nguyen also cited a recent incident in which a video of Second Life avatar Anshe Chung being a victim of a “griefing attack” was pulled from YouTube following a request.


In that situation, the avatar of Ms. Chung—whose real life name is Ailin Graef—was bombarded with pornographic imagery while being interviewed in CNET’s Second Life Theater. Originally, Ms. Graef argued that this was a copyright violation because she owns her avatar, according to a CNET article on the subject. The video was unavailable on YouTube for a period of time, but was later restored.


Another unintended consequence of this move could be that it extends the kerfuffle over Ms. Abdul’s behavior rather than quelling it. Mr. Nguyen called this the “Barbra Streisand effect,” referring to that actress’s insistence that paparazzi photos of her mansion not be used. Perhaps it will become known as the Idol effect.