A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled Wednesday that Google must remove a low-budget YouTube film ridiculing Islam’s founder as a lustful murderer who invented passages in the Quran to satisfy his sexual desires.
A trailer promoting the film was blamed for murderous rampages in Muslim-majority countries in 2012 and was initially cited by some U.S. officials as the cause of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, Libya.
Google previously refused a White House request that it consider removing the video and won a lower court victory to keep the film available.
Some copies of the film on YouTube inform would-be U.S. viewers Wednesday the content “is not available on this country domain due to a legal complaint.”
YouTube, which is owned by Google, previously blocked access to the film in India and Indonesia, complying with local government requests, and voluntarily blocked access in Egypt and Libya.
The U.S. court case, known as Garcia v. Google, Inc., deals with a copyright claim from Cindy Lee Garcia, who alleges filmmaker Mark Basseley Youssef deceived her about the nature of the film. Garcia, who was paid $500 for her performance, says she believed the film dealt with less inflammatory subject matter.
Two of the three appeals court judges agreed with Garcia, overturning a lower-court ruling. The judges said the alleged deception by Youssef nullified Garcia’s consent and validates her copyright argument.
“The film differs so radically from anything Garcia could have imagined when she was cast that it can’t possibly be authorized by any implied license she granted Youssef,” the judges wrote. “A clear sign that Youssef exceeded the bounds of any license is that he lied to Garcia in order to secure her participation, and she agreed to perform in reliance on that lie. Youssef’s fraud alone is likely enough to void any agreement he had with Garcia. But even if it’s not, it’s clear evidence that his inclusion of her performance in 'Innocence of Muslims' exceeded the scope of the implied license and was, therefore, an unauthorized, infringing use.”
The judges also dismissed Google’s claim that the film is so widely circulated that removing it from YouTube would have no effect.
“Taking down the film from YouTube will remove it from a prominent online platform – the platform on which it was first displayed – and will curb the harms of which Garcia complains,” they wrote.
Youssef, an Egypt-born Coptic Christian living in California, was arrested after becoming the focus of international news coverage and was sentenced in November 2012 to one year in prison for violating a probation order by using aliases as he created and promoted the film.
Google’s press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling.
Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University, says “what is interesting about the ruling is that the record is somewhat unclear about the deception that happened with this actress.”
“There’s obviously a free speech concern when you see such a concerted effort to pressure the withdrawal of a film," Turley says. "The Obama administration worked hard to try to force the removal of the film while they were saying publicly that they supported free speech.”
Turley says the case has such a unique set of facts that it may be unlikely to have broader legal implications.
But, he says, “the obvious concern is that actors will be pressured to make similar claims with controversial films in the future.”
Read the appeals court ruling: