On Tuesday, a group of protesters showed up at the Alameda Courthouse in Oakland, California, for the pre-trial hearing for Jason Fletcher, a police officer who was charged with manslaughter for shooting and killing Steven Taylor, a Black man, inside of a Walmart last year. Along with Taylor’s family, advocates for justice gathered to listen to the hearing broadcast on the courthouse steps, as covid restrictions prevented them from entering the courtroom. That’s when a sheriff’s deputy showed up with some pop tunes.
In a video taken on the steps, policy director for the Anti-Police Terror Project James Burch can be seen asking a sheriff’s deputy why the group can’t use their banner. Midway through the conversation, the sheriff’s deputy pulled out his phone, turned up Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” on speaker, and slid it into his shirt. “You can record all you want,” he told the person filming, “I just know it just can’t be posted on YouTube.” Sheriff’s deputy David Shelby then turned to show the camera the name on his uniform.
Shelby’s approach is now a known police tactic: weaponizing YouTube’s copyright flagging system against public citizens. Earlier this year, a Beverly Hills officer chose Sublime as the backtrack for his conversation with a man who came to dispute a ticket. (The video remains on Instagram.) The video would predictably trigger YouTube’s automated content ID system, which would pick up on Swift’s copyrighted song and trigger a block on the entire video. It also raises the chances that a record label would explicitly request the video to be removed.
Burch told Gizmodo that the group began filming when a group of four officers repeatedly interrupted their listening to tell them to move “Justice for Steven Taylor” banners they’d hung on the walls. When they moved the banner to the stairs and again gathered to listen to the hearing, the officers then told them that people “could trip,” despite the fact that no one was walking through the area. Burch said the group felt compelled to film because the over-aggressive approach started to feel “concerning.”
Gizmodo has reached out to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office asking whether the use of pop music is in line with departmental policy.
“There are family members there, listening to testimony from the Walmart asset protection agent who’s talking about witnessing the murder of their son or their sibling,” Burch said. “We just want these cops to leave because it’s a very traumatic situation and these people are very sensitive. And seeing a cop at that time, it’s very triggering.” In a statement last year, the Alameda District Attorney said that accounts and “multiple videos” confirmed that Taylor did not pose a threat of serious injury to anyone in the Walmart. They alleged that “less than 40 seconds elapsed” between Fletcher’s entrance and his shooting of Taylor. (Justice for Steven Taylor organizers have created a list of resources to advocate for the cause.)
“Before the cops came, we were just hovering over the speaker, within a couple feet trying to pick up what he was saying, because that’s the only way we could even get close,” Burch added. “And still we couldn’t really pick it up. It’s important context because people are frustrated, are having a difficult time trying to hear this hearing.” (The following day, Superior Court Judge Don C. Clay allowed the case to proceed, but he reportedly said that he highly doubted a jury would convict Officer Fletcher.)
As the Electronic Frontier Foundation has pointed out, YouTube’s copyright filter (or “digital fingerprinting system”) is most active in detecting audio. If a rightsholder has uploaded the audio to the system, YouTube’s system may automatically remove any video on their behalf. If the rightsholder chooses to leave it up, they have the option to monetize on it with their own ads. The system theoretically mitigates the scourge of copyright trolls who’ve held creators hostage with manual claims, threatening to get their accounts shut down with unfair copyright strikes (in some cases, even demanding ransom), or monetizing on other people’s videos which could have inadvertently included the licensed work.
Facebook, too, has evidently flagged even music in the public domain; last year, a Twitter user shared a screenshot showing that Facebook had muted a violinist’s Bach performance.
Katharine Trendacosta, Associate Director of Policy and Activism at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Gizmodo that cases like this demonstrate why content ID systems need to be “completely overhauled.” Without human review, she wrote, blanket automated removal “is a huge threat to legal expression online.”
“I’m especially concerned because we keep seeing calls for more of these filters, not fewer, and for them to be more restrictive, not less,” she added. “That would make them even easier to game by anyone trying to prevent well-earned criticism of their actions.” She considers GOP Senator Thom Tillis’s gambit to entirely overhaul digital copyright law to be a red flag.
Whether Taylor Swift supports this use of her music doesn’t matter; investment firm Shamrock Capital owns the rights to her back catalog, including “Blank Space.” Gizmodo has reached out to both Swift’s representative and Shamrock about whether they believe that the police deployment of the music to conceal their public behavior is appropriate.
This post has been modified to include comment from Katharine Trendacosta.