If you were in Western New York last November, or if you knew anyone in Western New York last November, you probably made a point of seeing Alfonzo Cutaia’s incredible time-lapse video, “Buffalo Lake Effect.”
Looking south from his office in the Guaranty Building in downtown Buffalo, Cutaia had captured perfectly the mechanics of the historic storm. You can see the cold air moving over Lake Erie as it literally vacuums up the surface water to dump up to 8 feet of snow on the Southtowns.
People linked to the YouTube version of the video on Twitter and Facebook, and within hours after Cutaia uploaded it, he says, he was receiving requests from media companies to share it with their audiences. Local TV stations, weather stations and national broadcasters asked to broadcast the half-minute clip.
One company that didn’t get permission, according to Cutaia, was the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., which he discovered was showing his video online – but with the CBC logo on it. He says it was an illegal copy of his monetized YouTube video – the one that brought him some advertising revenue and that other companies embedded on their sites so he would be credited.
Cutaia notified CBC and then decided to take the matter a step further.
It turned out that Buffalo’s “perfect storm” video was captured digitally by the perfect person to defend its ownership. Cutaia is a lawyer, specializing in patent law and trademark and copyright protection at Hodgson Russ. Represented by his colleague Hugh Russ, he is taking a stand.
Last week, Cutaia filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court accusing CBC and CNN of copyright infringement and with pirating the video from YouTube. He doesn’t specify damages, but says he would like the case to be heard by a jury, if and when it makes it to trial.
Cutaia said that he had contacted CBC as soon as he noticed the unauthorized use, but the video remained online. He says in his lawsuit that CBC eventually told him it had received permission from CNN to use the clip for 10 days. However, CNN hadn’t licensed the clip either, and Cutaia’s suit says CBC had the clip online for far more than 10 days.
News of the lawsuit broke on TorrentFreak, a site dedicated to news about copyright and privacy issues and it immediately got the attention of media in Canada, where CBC is the major national public broadcasting organization, and the oldest in the country. The Toronto Star quoted a CBC spokeswoman this week as saying the broadcaster has not yet had a chance to review the lawsuit and would not comment.
Cutaia’s case is unusual because he is not a regular online content producer. He has made a few videos for friends and family showing his kids and his dog, which have received views numbering in the high dozens. His “Buffalo Lake Effect” storm video now has more than 3.8 million views.
“I wasn’t diving into this looking for a payday,” Cutaia explained. “I think a lot of folks don’t know what their rights are (regarding copyright) and they realize them too late. I’m not a crusader, but I know what my rights are.”
So do major media companies. They are usually the ones filing lawsuits, suing the “little guys” or each other over unauthorized use of their content from television and the Internet. In 2007, Viacom famously sued Google, which owns YouTube, for allowing its users to post clips from its copyrighted TV shows and other products, with the lawsuit finally being settled in 2014.
This year, the Hollywood Reporter covered news of a lawsuit filed by Fox News against the media monitoring site TVEyes, which uses clips from Fox programming and other media outlets. Those outlets, including CBS, NBCUniversal and CNN, are supporting Fox in the case, according to the Reporter.
Small content producers like Cutaia generally limit their protests to online complaints – like the comedians now waging war against Instagram celebrity Josh Ostrovsky, who posts as “The Fat Jew” and who repeatedly lifts material from other comics’ posts. Protests over his plagiarism came to an online boil in the past few weeks when it was reported that he had secured a deal with the Creative Artists Agency.
Cutaia isn’t as angry as a clutch of struggling comics, but he’s definitely irritated that big news organizations wouldn’t play by the rules.
Along with the alleged copyright infringement, he believes they violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, passed in the late 1990s to prevent unethical technical end runs around online theft protections.
More than most people, Cutaia understands how that works. He worked as an electrical engineer for 14 years before getting his law degree, he said, and a big part of his client base is startup companies that need help protecting their digital profiles and products.
According to his résumé, he also was an intellectual property assistant for the University at Buffalo’s Office of Science, Technology Transfer and Economic Outreach.
In other words, he always had an interest in technology. That’s one of the reasons why, last Nov. 18, he decided to get a video of the storm.
“I had just gotten an iPhone 6,” he said, and he was eager to try some of its new features. When he saw the dark clouds churning outside his window, it was an ideal opportunity to try the time-lapse video recording.
Even he was surprised with what he saw when he watched the finished clip.
“I didn’t realize that it was water going up, not snow coming down,” he said.
Along with the barrage of media interested in using his video, he saw that many weather people were linking to the dramatic clip.
Asked if he ever heard anything from the iPhone people, he laughed and said no, but he added that he does really love using the phone.