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Originally published July 9, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 9, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Entertainer's claims whip up digital debate on copyrights

Uri Geller became a 1970s superstar and made millions with an act that included bending spoons, seemingly through the power of his own mind...

The Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Uri Geller became a 1970s superstar and made millions with an act that included bending spoons, seemingly through the power of his own mind.

Now, the online-video generation is so bent out of shape over the self-proclaimed psychic's behavior that he's fast reaching the same Internet pariah status as the recording and movie industries.

Geller's tireless attempts to silence his detractors have extended to Google's popular video-sharing site YouTube, landing him squarely in the center of a raging digital-age debate over controlling copyrights amid the massive volume of video and music clips flowing freely on the Internet.

Geller's critics say he and others are abusing a federal law meant to protect against online copyright infringement, and that YouTube and other Web sites are not doing enough to combat frivolous claims.

At issue is the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which makes it easy for Geller and others to persuade Internet companies to remove videos and music simply by sending so-called takedown notices that claim copyright ownership.

Most companies, including YouTube, do almost no investigation of the claims. That's because the DMCA protects companies being sued for copyright infringement if they respond quickly to the takedown notices.

"All it takes is a single e-mail to completely censor someone on the Internet," said Jason Schultz, a lawyer with the online civil-rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

Disputed clip

The San Francisco-based EFF is suing Geller for getting YouTube to remove an unflattering clip over which he claimed copyright ownership through his London-based company Explorologist Ltd.

It turns out that Geller owns just a brief snippet — perhaps no more than eight seconds of the 13 minutes of video — which he acknowledges in his court filings, arguing that his copyrighted material still has been improperly used.

It's the fifth such federal lawsuit EFF has filed against people it says have sent bogus takedown notices to YouTube and other online-video forums. EFF has won its four previous cases.

For almost as long as Geller has been bending spoons and moving compass needles with the wave of a hand, professional magicians have been debunking his claims of psychic ability.

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A new generation of critics — led by 30-year-old Brian Sapient of an organization called the Rational Response Squad — has taken the crusade online.

Sapient and others recently posted several video clips to YouTube demonstrating how Geller uses simple sleight of hand in his act.

One clip shows Geller presumably placing a small magnet on his left thumb before purporting to move the needle of a compass in front of a live television studio audience in Israel, where Geller was born.

Another includes Geller's infamous "Tonight Show" flop, in which Johnny Carson exposed Geller by providing his own spoons and other props.

In March, YouTube took down many of the clips and suspended Sapient's account when Geller sent takedown notices claiming he owned the copyrights to the unflattering clips.

That touched off an online tempest that has made Geller the subject of widespread derision and ridicule on several popular blogs like Boingboing.net.

The video and Sapient's YouTube account were restored two weeks later after he complained.

But Geller is still suing Sapient in Philadelphia's federal court, accusing him of copyright infringement and defamation.

Sapient maintains that the clips and his views of Geller are protected by the First Amendment and "fair use" legal provisions, which allow the use of copyrighted material for certain, noncommercial purposes such as criticism, news reporting and education.

"The fact that the portion of the copyrighted work used constitutes an insubstantial portion of the infringing work does not justify a finding of fair use," stated court documents filed last week on Geller's behalf.

"Put in its simplest terms, this case is about theft, not speech."

Geller, who has become nearly as famous for his litigiousness as for his alleged psychic abilities, knows his way around the court system.

He unsuccessfully sued longtime nemesis James "Amazing" Randi at least three times for defamation, stemming from Randi's own efforts to unmask Geller as a fraud, and lost several other cases lodged against his critics throughout the years.

Geller, who lives in the United Kingdom, referred calls to his Philadelphia lawyer, Richard Winelander, who conceded that Geller probably didn't foresee the firestorm his lawsuit would trigger.

"This thing has spun out of control," he said.

Winelander said the takedown notices and lawsuit were motivated by Geller's brother-in-law, business associate and filmmaker Shipi Shtrang, who got upset when he saw that the eight-second video he made appeared in Sapient's 13-minute video.

Sapient has countersued in San Francisco federal court with backing from EFF. They accuse Geller of misrepresenting to YouTube that he owned the disputed clips, and abusing the DMCA.

Surge in claims

Legal scholars and Internet watchdogs say the explosion of freely available online video and music has been accompanied by a surge of abusive copyright claims such as Geller's.

Most recently, EFF successfully sued choreographer Richard Silver to stop sending takedown notices to YouTube claiming videos of people performing the Electric Slide dance — sometimes at weddings — were violating his copyright on the dance.

There's also a growing frustration that resolving copyright disputes is being left largely to YouTube and other Internet-service providers that are taking down material with scant investigation.

"There is a clear trend toward more pressure on Internet-service providers to play a bigger role in policing the Internet," said John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School.

For instance, YouTube removed some 150,000 clips from its site after Viacom complained.

Viacom is also suing YouTube and its parent company Google for $1 billion in damages because it says the site is allowing copyrighted material like TV sitcoms to be posted.

YouTube and Google have denied any wrongdoing, citing their practice of removing videos as soon as a copyright owner sends a notice of unauthorized usage.

Ricardo Reyes, a spokesman for Google, which purchased YouTube for $1.76 billion late last year, defended the DMCA and the takedown notices.

He and other Internet service providers point to DMCA provisions that allow people who improperly receive takedown notices to sue the sender for misrepresenting copyright ownership.

"The trick is that you are breaking the law when you knowingly send notices for videos that you don't hold the copyrights," Reyes said.

"It's a good solution."

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