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Google lawyer says free speech at stake if anti-Muslim film kept off YouTube

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PASADENA, California — A lawyer for Google told a federal appeals court Monday that free speech is in jeopardy if a ruling stands forcing it to keep an anti-Muslim film off its YouTube service.

Attorney Neal Katyal told an 11-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena that copyright law is also at stake in a lawsuit brought by an actress who received death threats after a film trailer insulting the Prophet Muhammad sparked violence in the Middle East.

A divided three-judge panel of the court ordered YouTube to pull the video in February after deciding actress Cindy Lee Garcia had a copyright claim to the low-budget "Innocence of Muslims" video because she believed she was appearing in a different production than the one that appeared.

Garcia was paid $500 for a movie called "Desert Warrior" she believed had nothing to do with religion, but ended up in a five-second scene in which her voice was dubbed over so her character asked if Muhammad was a child molester.

The ruling will fragment copyright law and restrict free speech if it stands, Katyal said.

Google is supported in its appeal by an unusual alliance that includes filmmakers, Internet rivals such as Yahoo and prominent news media companies such as The New York Times that don't want the court to infringe on First Amendment rights or change copyright law.

PHOTO: File - This Sept. 20, 2012 file photo shows Cindy Lee Garcia, right, one of the actresses in the film "Innocence of Muslims," and attorney M. Cris Armenta at a news conference before a hearing at Los Angeles Superior Court in Los Angeles.  A federal appeals court is reconsidering a decision to order YouTube to take down the anti-Muslim film that sparked violence in the Middle East and death threats to actors. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena will consider arguments Monday, Dec. 15, 2014, by Google, which owns YouTube, to reverse its earlier decision. AP Photo/Jason Redmond, File)
File - This Sept. 20, 2012 file photo shows Cindy Lee Garcia, right, one of the actresses in the film "Innocence of Muslims," and attorney M. Cris Armenta at a news conference before a hearing at Los Angeles Superior Court in Los Angeles. A federal appeals court is reconsidering a decision to order YouTube to take down the anti-Muslim film that sparked violence in the Middle East and death threats to actors. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena will consider arguments Monday, Dec. 15, 2014, by Google, which owns YouTube, to reverse its earlier decision. AP Photo/Jason Redmond, File)

If the court upholds the smaller panel's ruling, YouTube and other Internet companies could face takedown notices from others in minor video roles.

Google argued that the copyright was owned by filmmaker Mark Basseley Youssef, who wrote the script, managed the production and dubbed over Garcia's dialogue.

A dissenting judge said Garcia played no creative role that would give her ownership rights.

Until the court order, YouTube had rejected calls by President Barack Obama and other world leaders to pull the video, arguing that it would amount to government censorship and violate free speech protections.

Garcia has support from the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Musicians.

Alex Lawrence, a copyright and intellectual property lawyer in New York not connected with the case, said he thinks the court will reverse the earlier ruling because the judges reached a decision to give Garcia some relief on thinly grounded law.

"There's a lot of sympathy for Miss Garcia," Lawrence said. "She got paid $500 and received death threats. Everyone feels sympathy for her, but using copyright in this way is a real problem for a lot of industries."

The film drew the attention of federal prosecutors, who discovered that Youssef had used several false names in violation of probation from a 2010 check fraud case. He was sent back to prison in 2012 and was released on probation in September 2013.

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PHOTO: File - This Sept. 20, 2012 file photo shows Cindy Lee Garcia, right, one of the actresses in the film "Innocence of Muslims," and attorney M. Cris Armenta at a news conference before a hearing at Los Angeles Superior Court in Los Angeles.  A federal appeals court is reconsidering a decision to order YouTube to take down the anti-Muslim film that sparked violence in the Middle East and death threats to actors. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena will consider arguments Monday, Dec. 15, 2014, by Google, which owns YouTube, to reverse its earlier decision. AP Photo/Jason Redmond, File)
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