If you have a noisy neighbor who plays loud music when you're trying to sleep, you may feel you have no choice but to call the police. But what if the police are the ones playing the loud music?
On April 4, in Santa Ana, officers responded to a report of a stolen car around 11 p.m. In a video of the events uploaded to the YouTube channel "Santa Ana Audits," the man filming approaches several parked police SUVs surrounding a car which he later identifies as a Porsche. Suddenly, after a period of filming, the sound of Randy Newman's "You've Got a Friend in Me," from the Toy Story soundtrack, starts playing through loudspeakers, seemingly from one of the police vehicles.
As the playlist cycles through several other songs from Disney movies, neighbors come out of their homes and approach the officers, complaining about the noise. One of those is Johnathan Ryan Hernandez, a Santa Ana city councilman. Hernandez asks one officer, who is holding a cell phone still playing Disney songs, "What's going on with the music?" The officer indicates that the filming was "not letting us conduct our investigation"; when pressed further on why he's playing music, he gestures to the camera and says, "Because it'll be copyright infringement for him."
Despite numerous court rulings upholding the right to record, police officers across the country continue to harass citizens who film them, even going so far as to try to grab phones and delete the footage themselves.
But within the past couple of years, officers around the U.S. have been caught playing copyrighted music when encountering citizens with cameras. When the footage is uploaded to YouTube, the video site's algorithms can detect the presence of copyrighted content and pull the video down automatically. Many companies responsible for content creation are litigious, but especially Disney.
Ultimately, Councilman Hernandez convinced the officer to both stop playing the music, and apologize to the man filming. But this is far from an isolated event: In fact, there are enough documented incidents that Vice coined the term "copyright hacking" to describe it. Last year in nearby Beverly Hills, officers played music by the Beatles and Sublime in apparent attempts to trigger social media copyright filters. In July, in Oakland, an officer played a Taylor Swift song and advised the person filming, "You can record all you want. I just know it can't be posted to YouTube." And in September, an Illinois officer indicated in an incident report that he "was recently advised" to play music while citizens filmed.
While playing songs from children's movies may be less adversarial than grabbing someone's phone from their hands, the motivation is the same: to prevent themselves from being lawfully recorded while interacting with citizens. It still constitutes an abuse of power, and a violation of the public's trust. But it is also an example of the power to weaponize laws that apply too broad of a brush to certain issues. Incidentally capturing background music in a video is not a copyright violation, and it should not be treated as such by an overzealous algorithm.
In 2019, Cory Doctorow dismissed the idea of playing copyrighted music during neo-Nazi rallies to prevent them from being posted online, since the tactic could be co-opted by anyone: "Are you a cop who's removed his bodycam before wading into a protest with your nightstick? Just play some loud copyrighted music from your cruiser and you'll make all the videos of the beatings you dole out un-postable."
Thankfully, the filtering algorithms have a shaky track record: Every video mentioned above, including the one of an officer saying "[this] can't be posted to YouTube," are still available on YouTube or Instagram. And The Washington Post reported yesterday that the police department was investigating the incident in Santa Ana. But it seems clear that copyright laws need to change with the times, especially since agents of the state are using those laws to dodge accountability and hinder free speech.