Al Cutaia was just the right guy to get deluged with calls last November after shooting what became a memorable time-lapse video of the decade’s monster storm sucking up water from Lake Erie.
A less informed YouTube user might have been rolled over by the David-and-Goliath type response he got from a few big media companies that seemed not to care who created the 31-second video.
Not Cutaia. The Clarence resident captured the video from the window of his 12th-floor office, where he works as an intellectual property lawyer for Hodgson Russ. Copyrights are his work.
There’s something satisfying about seeing just the right person defend his creation at a time when it seems as though the world has developed a general disregard for giving due credit. The Internet has made it infinitely easier to share. It’s also made it infinitely easier to steal.
This story started nine months ago on the morning of Nov. 18, when much of the City of Buffalo was eerily calm and nearly empty as that fearsome band of lake-effect snow battered communities just a few miles south. Cutaia, looking out from the Guaranty Building, captured a rare glimpse of the region’s lake-effect machine at work with his iPhone.
It went viral. By the end of the day, the video had been viewed on YouTube 513,009 times. By the second day, it had been viewed 2.3 million more times.
It didn’t take long for Cutaia’s phone to ring with requests from all over the world to use the video. Many got his permission and credited him. A few, he claims, did not.
And that’s how Cutaia made national news again last week when he decided to take on CNN, CBC, Time and Accuweather with lawsuits claiming the companies infringed his copyright by airing the video without permission.
It’s not really a fight about money. Cutaia made some money off the video. Not quit-your-day-job money, but more than the $50 he joked he thought he might make when he first uploaded it.
It’s about making the point that everything on the Internet isn’t just up for grabs.
“I think this happens to people often,” Cutaia said. “And I’d like the larger companies to know that they have to play by the rules, too.”
If there’s a happy byproduct of the lawsuit, it’s that more people might understand their rights.
“There are limited exceptions for fair use – and that’s a real complex area of law – but the overarching principle here is that you’re the owner, and you should be able to decide what to do with that video,” Cutaia said.
As it turns out, Cutaia isn’t really the David of this David-and-Goliath, little-guy-takes-on-big-company story. His legal expertise and job at one of the region’s top law firms puts him in a strong position to enforce his rights. But anyone savvy enough to share their work online can learn from his story.
“One thing people don’t understand is that copyright springs into being as soon as you do anything creative,” said Mark Bartholomew, a University at Buffalo intellectual property law professor. “As soon as you take that picture or make that collage, you automatically have copyright protection.”
Bartholomew points out that we’re used to hearing about outsized copyright battles in which the giant companies swoop in to stop the mom-and-pops from using their stuff. Cutaia has shown us the little guy counts, too.