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Warner Music vs. YouTube casualties include a banjo-playing 'Star Wars' fan*

January 26, 2009 |  6:32 pm

A couple of years ago in a galaxy very, very nearby (OK, it's this one), a Web developer who does contract work for the U.S. Air Force filmed himself playing the "Star Wars" theme song on his banjo.

The banjo player, Will Chatham, from Asheville, N.C., posted the video to YouTube. It amassed 1.5 million hits, 8,000 comments, numerous blog-post references and an offer to play a gig at Lucasfilm's 30th anniversary "Star Wars" party. Oh, plus one notice of copyright infringement.

The notice landed last week, making Chatham one of many casualties of the falling out between Warner Music Group and YouTube. It began last month with music videos from such major acts as Linkin Park and rapper T.I. disappearing from the video portal, then quickly escalated.

Warner, it appears, didn't even warn some of its own bands before pulling clips. Social news website Reddit pointed out that pop rockers Death Cab for Cutie were left with egg on their faces, when links on the band's website began pointing to copyright-infringement notices on YouTube instead of the music videos that once stood in their place. The band's webmaster has since removed the links.

Chatham, who plays in a bluegrass group called the Whappers (no, they're not signed to Warner), is fighting back. Since receiving the e-mail from YouTube regarding Warner's claim, Chatham has filled out copyright counterclaim papers. If Warner doesn't respond within 10 days, YouTube may put the banjo video back online, according to a YouTube support page.

He says he can't understand how the innocent clip of him playing his cover version on a couch -- a video that was once chosen by YouTube to be featured on its home page -- could be illegal.

"It's me just sitting there, playing on my banjo," he said. "If someone actually stopped and looked at it, they would be like, Oh, well, that's just some guy being silly."

Neither Warner, nor the company's lawyer, nor YouTube would ...

... comment on the case. But Chatham appears to have been dinged for performing a copyrighted song without permission. The legal definition of "performance" in situations like these remains a gray area and may continue to be until YouTube hobbyists begin to bring these cases to court.

YouTube provides content owners, including Warner, access to identification tools so they can elect to monetize or remove user's uploads that match the copyright owner's reference material. Warner chose the latter.

Warner says it's working toward negotiating a contract that would put its videos back on YouTube. "Until then, we simply cannot accept terms that fail to appropriately and fairly compensate recording artists, songwriters, labels and publishers for the value they provide," the recording company said in an e-mailed statement.

Chatham isn't alone in his grassroots struggle. Many are expressing their disdain in the form of video rants -- some with more vulgarity than others.

(We apologize in advance for breaking the blogger's code and not linking to the videos we're telling you about, but we've got family-standards rules to follow here at the L.A. Times. But you can see some of them on this TechCrunch post about the YouTube-Warner fight from this weekend.)

One video we could embed is above, by Juliet Weybret, a 15-year-old singer who says her piano-and-vocals rendition of "Winter Wonderland" was yanked because it infringed Warner Music's copyrights. "I'm furious right now," her video begins.

Several other videos condemn Warner Music's decision in unequivocal (and unprintable) terms. One frequently viewed clip features images of former President George W. Bush, SpongeBob SquarePants and Warner artist Madonna extending their middle fingers, while the accompanying text describes the company as a "greedy corporate pig." 

Another video is addressed to the label's executives. A single, typewritten protest criticizes Warner for aggressively patrolling and removing its music videos from YouTube and other online video sites. It also offers some unsolicited advice: "I suggest you lighten up and start being a little more fan-friendly."

One fatigue-clad YouTuber, a 37-year-old who goes by the name Tyger WDR, launches into a six-minute rant that definitely warrants the explicit-lyrics warning he includes at the beginning. He advises other YouTube users to eschew the "very juvenile" extended-middle-finger type protests and express their displeasure like adults -- by complaining directly to Warner Music and YouTube owner Google via fax and e-mail. For good measure, he displays their corporate contact information.

"Let them know that we will not be ignored, we will be heard, and we are not happy," he says.

Corrected, 12:30 p.m.: A previous version of this post said that YouTube was obligated to restore a video if Warner doesn't respond within 10 days. YouTube may choose to put the video back online after 10 days but isn't required to do so.

-- Mark Milian and Dawn C. Chmielewski

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