A federal appeals court on Monday overturned a decision ordering Google to take down an anti-Islam propaganda video linked to the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, handing a victory to online-free-speech advocates.
On a split vote, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled against Cindy Lee Garcia, who sued Google on the grounds that the search giant infringed on her copyright rights by hosting the video—known as Innocence of Muslims—on YouTube. The actress has argued that she was tricked into appearing in the movie after responding to an ad posting that she claims was for another movie.
"By all accounts, Cindy Lee Garcia was bamboozled," Judge Mary Margaret McKeown wrote for the court. "We are sympathetic to her plight."
But deception is not sufficient evidence to warrant a copyright takedown, McKeown said, adding that Garcia's claim amounts to "copyright cherry picking.
"In this case, a heartfelt plea for personal protection is juxtaposed with the limits of copyright law and fundamental principles of free speech," McKeown wrote. "The appeal teaches a simple lesson—a weak copyright claim cannot justify censorship in the guise of authorship."
Garcia appears in the video for five seconds. It was not clear if she planned to pursue a further appeal. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In its ruling, the appeals court agreed with a district court that ruled in Google's favor in 2012, after Garcia initially brought the case. The district court said that her claim did not meet the high bar for the judges to require Google to take down the video she appeared in.
To be successful, Garcia would have had to convince the district court in 2012 that a ruling in her favor would prevent further harm. Although her performance provoked death threats and a fatwa from an Egyptian cleric calling for the death of those involved in the film, the district court decided that since the video was previously online for five months and viewed millions of times, the takedown would not prevent any harm.
Garcia appealed, and a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit sided with her last year, forcing Google to take the video off YouTube.
But the majority of the full 9th Circuit on Monday overturned that injunction, arguing that it was unwarranted and represented an infringement of the First Amendment.
In a dissent, Judge Alex Kozinski charged his colleagues with erring in their interpretation of Garcia's claims. "The majority is wrong and makes a total mess of copyright law, right here in the Hollywood Circuit," Kozinski wrote.
Kozinski wrote the three-judge panel decision last year that determined Garcia was eligible to assert her copyright interests on her Innocence of Muslims performance.
Monday's case has drawn intense interest from open-Internet activists and several tech companies, who argued that last year's ruling forcing a takedown of the video could lead to overly burdensome copyright limitations on the Internet. Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, eBay, and Netflix all filed briefs supporting Google's position.
A 2013 New York Times investigation found that Innocence of Muslims partially contributed to the September 2012 burst of violence in Benghazi, in which four Americans, including U.S. Amb. Christopher Stevens, were killed.