The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, the supervising body and publisher for the Jehovah’s Witness religious group, is known to go to extreme lengths to clamp down on those believed to be undermining the faith.
While much of this takes place in the background, Watch Tower’s practices can become public when the group takes legal action against people alleged to have breached its intellectual property rights.
Watch Tower holds registered copyrights for many works so when these are republished, oftentimes by detractors, critics and/or former members, the group is happy to take matters to court.
Stop-Motion Lego Animator ‘Kevin McFree’ First Targeted in 2018
In the summer of 2018, Watch Tower filed an application for a DMCA subpoena at a New York court, as it has done many times before. The aim was to have YouTube/Google hand over the personal details of a user known online as Kevin McFree who operates a YouTube channel of the same name.
“This channel is not intended for children, but rather seeks to provide some light hearted humor for adults who finally see the high control group known as Jehovah’s Witnesses for what they are!” the channel’s description reads. “Content on this channel is primarily EX-JW Stop motion animation stories set in a fictional Jehovah’s Witness town known as DubTown.”
According to Watch Tower, one of McFree’s videos (DUBTOWN – Family Worship July Broadcast) contained around seven and a half minutes of footage leaked from Jehovah’s Witness videos. The video was removed by YouTube but McFree also mounted a defense, challenging the subpoena. Arguments centered around the fair use provisions of the DMCA but after almost three years, the matter is still not settled.
Seemingly in response, Watch Tower has now filed a full-blown lawsuit against McFree.
Defendant Allegedly Used Unpublished Works in Breach of Copyright
Filed this week in the same New York court as the DMCA subpoena, Watch Tower’s complaint alleges that John Doe (aka Kevin McFree) obtained “purloined copies” of four then-unpublished copyrighted audiovisual works and used significant portions in his ‘DUBTOWN – Family Worship July Broadcast video’ published to YouTube.
According to Watch Tower, these four videos were created between August 2017 and January 2018 and were registered with the Copyright Office in August 2018. Precautions were reportedly taken to prevent “premature disclosure to the public”, including requiring production team members to sign legal agreements. However, it’s claimed that Kevin McFree managed to obtain leaked copies of the video from inside the religious group.
WT: Defendant Cannot Rely On Fair Use Defense
Watch Tower says that McFree cannot rely on a fair use defense in this matter. He allegedly “reproduced significant portions” of the original videos including 90% of the visual aspects and more than 50% of the audio aspects of one particular video (‘Never Alone’) and the “heart” and “creative aspects” of the others. All in, Watch Tower claims that its videos made up over half of the DubTown video.
The religious group also claims that the use of the videos was “generally” unaccompanied by criticism or comment, barring the ridiculing of the Watch Tower’s production techniques, which the group suggests was a result of the videos being unfinished.
On another aspect of fair use – whether the DubTown video was produced for profit – Watch Tower claims McFree had a commercial motive. According to the complaint, McFree solicited donations on his YouTube page while promoting a for-profit t-shirt business.
“Upon information and belief, by virtue of his unlawful conduct described above, Defendant has made or will make substantial profits and gains to which he is not in law or equity entitled, including without limitation in the form of Google ad revenue, as well as ‘donations’ and revenue streams from advertised merchandise,” the complaint adds.
References to Earlier DMCA Subpoena
Watch Tower says that when it initially learned of the video’s existence on YouTube, it sent a DMCA takedown notice demanding its removal. YouTube removed the video and Watch Tower filed for a DMCA subpoena to have Google/YouTube hand over McFree’s personal details. McFree filed a motion to quash and as mentioned earlier, the matter is still outstanding.
Watch Tower makes further references to that case, noting that McFree claimed he had obtained the portions of the copyrighted videos from another video (the ‘Cedars Video’) which was posted to YouTube in April 2018. However, Watch Tower says this is demonstrably false as “certain portions” of their videos that were present in the ‘DubTown’ video were not present in the ‘Cedars’ video.
According to the group, McFree later clarified his position by stating that he had obtained copies of the videos before they were completed.
Claim For Relief – Copyright Infringement and Injunctions
Watch Tower says that since it is the author and sole owner of all rights to the four videos, Kevin McFree has committed copyright infringement under Section 501 of the Copyright Act. Watch Tower doesn’t mention any specific monetary value in respect of its claim but if the infringement is deemed to be willful, damages can reach $150,000 per violation.
In addition, the religious group demands preliminary and permanent injunctions enjoining McFree from any further reproduction, copying, performance or exploitation of the copyright works, including via the DubTown video.
Watch Tower’s copyright complaint can be found here (pdf)