Legal limbo: Disney could go after you for posting vacation videos online

Lots of people use YouTube and other video sharing sites to upload videos taken on their vacations. But when it comes to footage of your last trip to Disneyland, a park run by corporate masters who are famously vigilant in protecting their intellectual rights with lawsuits, you may want to keep those videos to yourself.

As it turns out, corporate lawyers for theme parks have every right to come down on you like a ton of bricks for posting videos of their client's lucrative creations, including banjo-playing bears or live versions of Beauty and the Beast. Indeed, you could theoretically get sued for posting a video of your daughter's first ride on Peter Pan's Flight and sharing it with everyone you know.

"Disney theme parks are tremendously popular as places where guests create lasting memories with family and friends using media such as videos," began the response from a spokesperson for Disney Parks. And then: "In instances when uploaded video violates our intellectual property rights we have options to protect it."

Too vague for you? It was for me, since it doesn't explain how Mom and Dad will know if they have violated those rights.

"Each situation is evaluated on a case-by-case basis," Disney's rep said when pressed further. However, the rep refused to provide the corporate definition of "intellectual property rights," or to say which aspects of a case would be evaluated. In fact, the rep declined to elaborate on the topic at all.

When it comes to copyright, if someone uses proprietary material in news coverage, parody, or criticism, it's often considered "fair use" and it's allowed to slide. But in this age of Web reporting and citizen criticism, could a YouTube video of the Finding Nemo musical at Animal Kingdom be considered "fair use"? It's tough to get an exact number of vacation videos already online, but YouTube a search for "Disney World vacation" pulls about 67,500 hits, while individual attractions got smaller numbers: It's a Small World claims 4,230 and Splash Mountain offers 2,160.

And what would happen if YouTube should place a few ads onto a popular video taken at a Disney park, as with this example from the Hall of Presidents? When that happens, it means a guest is making a little bit of money off the video of Disney characters. Are you infringing on Disney's copyright in all or some of these cases?

A Gray Area That Can Go Painfully Awry

Disney doesn't deny it either way, but the wording of its policy, and its ominous reference to its "options," might suggest otherwise. Disney has no stated policy against your right to post videos that document your park experiences. It also has no stated policy saying you can.

To stave off persistent accusations of enabling copyright infringement, YouTube historically been quickly compliant with corporate complaints. It follows a largely pre-emptive policy of summarily deleting any video for which you can't prove you own the rights. Its policy can be as erratic as Disney's is vague, inciting the ire of Web watchdog groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation. (That may be annoying, but at least you don't live in Italy, where the government is proposing you have to obtain a license if you want to upload any moving picture to the Internet.)

In some cases, YouTube has entered into partnership deals with companies such as Warner Music Group to post the only officially approved versions of their content. If YouTube deletes your home movies, remind them Disney has no policy that says you're not allowed participate in revenue-sharing opportunities, such as using Google AdSense.

On the dark side, Disney's stated policy leaves plenty of room for it to come after you. Theoretically, it could decide tomorrow to sue you over that vacation video of the musical parade down Main Street. It's unlikely as long as your upload portrays the company in a positive light, but it could.

I could find no example of such a lawsuit so far, probably because few people would think that defending their free Web upload rights would be worth the legal bills. Typically, the first step of such a dispute would be for a copyright holder to contact the Website hosting any offending video and demand its removal, and as soon as that happens, the hosted copies of the vacation video are usually deleted.

Until the big theme parks address this legal gray area, be warned that your home movies of the Enchanted Tiki Room are uploaded at your own risk, and they could theoretically result in your facing down the barrel of some corporate weaponry -- or at the very least, seeing your vacation videos erased by YouTube on the basis of no clearly stated set of guidelines. Without a clear policy in place, Disney could be justified in requesting the removal of all them tomorrow.

Disney Isn't the Only One

And other theme parks' policies toward video sharing?

Universal Orlando Resort said "we would ask that [guests] use caution when posting to share sites or social sites. Many of our rides, shows and activities include trademarks or copyrighted elements. We would naturally be concerned in anything that was shared in public violated law or regulations or compromised our good name."

Like Disney, then, you're allowed to post home videos. Except when you're not allowed to.

Universal, too, would not supply WalletPop with its policy on ads being placed on guests' vacation videos.

The theme park company with the most explicit and permissive policy was, not surprisingly, also the same one with few proprietary characters at stake. I asked Busch Entertainment Corp., which runs SeaWorld and Busch Gardens, whether the company takes an official line when guests posts videos of their in-park experiences.

"We like it when our guests do that," a rep told me, adding that although footage "can't be used commercially or re-sold," the company isn't averse to guests collecting revenue-share money from ads placed on their videos.

"We don't consider that to be a violation of someone sharing their personal video," the rep said.
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