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In Brief: Did a Federal Court in Massachusetts End Online Videos As We Know It? We’ll See.

Online videos may change forever.

In a surprising ruling last week (that is now meandering its way around the Internet), a federal judge in Massachusetts has held that Netflix’s failure to provide closed captioning on streaming video could violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The case itself is available through Professor Eric Goldman’s website here and here.  Because this is a preliminary motion, the case will now go through the discovery process.

As Professor Goldman pointed out, the Plaintiffs were smart to bring this case somewhere in the First Circuit which has the relatively expansive Carparts Distrib. Ctr. v. Auto. Wholesaler’s Assoc., 37 F.3d 12 (1st Cir. 1994) as precedent.

There was a lot of discussion regarding the interplay between the ADA and the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA).  The Court essentially held that these two acts compliment and do not supplant each other (at least in the areas concerning this case).  The importance of this distinction is that the CVAA has different standards regarding when closed captioning was needed and would allow Netflix to escape liability in this case.  The Court held that the ADA was far more restrictive, was applicable and was not supplanted by the CVAA.  In the end, the Court held that website can be a place of accommodation under the ADA – even ones with subscription services not available to everyone.

One other interesting tidbit was Netflix’s argument that they were not the copyright owners of the material they stream and thus, could not be held responsible for closed-captioning another’s work.  This too is a winning argument.  The Court, however, held that it needed further discovery on this issue.

In the end, I think that may be Netflix’s escape hatch (at least with this Judge).  Far more troublesome are the effect this could have on YouTube.  Could its users be held to have to close caption their videos when they upload them?

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