Small-Town Librarian Takes On Sony–and Wins

Don’t mess with Abbe Klebanoff, the head of public services for Pennsylvania’s Lansdowne Public Library. She encouraged teens to create a music video called “Read It” to the music of Michael Jackson’s song, “Beat It,” and posted it on YouTube. What followed was predictable—Sony objected and took it down, claiming copyright infringement.

The passionate Klebanoff, who spent weeks helping the teens compose the three-minute video (and spent much of her free time editing it), defended it as parody and fair use. She spent Monday, November 27 traveling to Manhattan on her own dime to plead with Sony officials. They finally caved when the local media and Good Morning America told her story.

We asked Klebanoff to tell us what happened in her own words. Check out the video and decide for yourself whether copyright law goes too far if it is used to silence underprivileged kids who are pushing the benefits of reading. (Read more information about copyright restrictions and exceptions.)

“Monday afternoon, as I approached the behemoth SONY Headquarters, I did not think that at 5 feet nothing, I could slay the dragon. After all, I was just a little librarian from Lansdowne, PA. Our small borough is only one square mile. Sony is a multinational corporation.

But in the end, Sony relented and unblocked a YouTube video created by the Lansdowne Library Teen Advisory Board. This saga began months ago, when my director suggested we make a Michael Jackson parody on “Beat It.” This was something she always wanted to do. The occasion was a dedication to a long-time library worker who died a couple of years ago. Ronnie Hawkins loved the library, and it was a fitting tribute to make a video that featured kids having fun at the library with a great message about reading.

The teens spent weeks relentlessly rehearing dance moves, wrote original lyrics that promoted reading and acted in several scenes from the video. On November 16, the night of the dedication, those who loved Ronnie attended. Our entire board of trustees was there, David Belanger, the head of the Delaware County Library, was there and the teens were there. The video was a success! Belanger wanted us to post the video on the County Facebook page.

Well, imagine my surprise when I went to post the video and discovered Sony blocked it. There are tons of parodies of Michael Jackson’s songs. Why did Sony single out the Lansdowne Library? It didn’t make any sense. It had to be a computer algorithm picking up newly posted videos, I reasoned. I tried to challenge YouTube by clicking on an option on the Copyright Page. I told them we were a public library, and that we weren’t making a dime off this, and that I believed this was fair use in addition to being a parody.

It was denied.

My teens created another video called “Just UN-Ban It!”

I wrote to Sony and pleaded my case, but to no avail. Sony countered that this was not a parody. Instead they suggested it was a “message” video. They didn’t object to the actual music, which wasn’t taken from the album. We used a karaoke version of the song, and the students added their own lyrics.

Damn! How could we spend so many weeks working on this video—with pre-production meetings, actual filming and hours upon hours editing—and not have anyone see it?

I was mortified. A friend and social media maven, Imogen Wirth-Granlund, suggested I write a killer press release. We sent that out and the local paper bit.

After a front-page story, complete with online video coverage, we started making headway. As a result, Sony said they’d allow the video, but only on the library’s homepage—and only for six weeks. No YOUTUBE!

Really, Sony? Who’s going to come to our library webpage? Well, after the press coverage, about 700 people!

I spoke to Debra Lau Whelan from the National Coalition Against Censorship, who offered support, the local public radio station, WHYY, which did an on air and web piece.

Sony was starting to feel the pressure.

Then my director received a call from the national morning show, Good Morning America. They loved the story. It was David vs. Goliath. My teens were there, my director was eloquent and I was passionate.

Half way through the interview, the local GMA producer who was interviewing us received word that Sony unblocked the video at around 5 p.m. Sony never contacted me directly. But I learned that Sony would make an exception because of the video’s positive message about reading!! Well, Halleluiah!

The only email I received from Sony came at 7:12 p.m. telling me that I had to fill out more forms and contact ASCAP. The procedure was expensive and time consuming.

Sony never explained why they pulled this video, while many other YouTube videos with similar themes and parodies remain on the site. It doesn’t matter. I’m thrilled. The kids can now freely show this video to their parents—and I can go to bed knowing that our library won this victory.

Copyright laws are complicated. This is an interesting case and one that I hope will spark debate about copyright and non-profits, specifically libraries that are trying to do good in the face of road blocks from big corporations. Though Sony couldn’t be bothered to let me in the front doors, I won only because of the power of the press.

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