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YouTube's Blocked Testimony

Update (July 7): Ergun Caner has been ordered to pay more than $34,000 in attorney's fees in a copyright infringement lawsuit concerning YouTube videos used to explain his Muslim past. A federal judge on July 1 dismissed the lawsuit, declaring that, of two videos in question, one was protected under the U.S. Copyright Office's fair use doctrine and Caner did not adequately prepare for a copyright lawsuit over the other.

In his opinion, Virginia district court judge Norman Moon further noted that Caner used "frivolous arguments" and was "objectively unreasonable" during the case:

[Caner]'s conduct in this court leads me to conclude that he acted with improper motive in bringing this suit, that he took multiple, objectively unreasonable legal and factual positions, and that a fee award is needed to encourage defendants like Autry to protect their rights against those who, like Caner, seek to suppress criticism. Equally, those like Caner should be deterred from exploiting the court system for their own purposes.

The Associated Baptist Press reports more details.

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Critics of ex-Muslim academic Ergun Caner say his attempt to remove online videos of his talks is designed to quell criticism. Caner's attorney says it's a case of simply defending copyright.

The case is slowly working its way through federal court, and has implications for how churches communicate.

Now a vice president at Arlington Baptist Theological Seminary near Dallas, Caner sued two men last June for posting the videos on YouTube.

The videos show Caner in 2005 warning U.S. Marines that Muslims are a danger. They were first posted by Jason Smathers, an Arizona Baptist pastor, who got them from the Marines through a Freedom of Information Act request. Jonathan Autry, a graduate of Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, where Caner had been dean, saw them and became concerned. He believed Caner had tried to deceive people into believing that he (Caner) had been a radicalized Muslim from Turkey.

Autry believed that because Caner was "lying to Marines in the midst of two wars," he was someone "people needed to be warned about." He posted 34 videos of Caner on his own YouTube channel. YouTube took down the videos, but Autry and Smathers successfully appealed to have them republished. Caner is suing to have them removed permanently. He is also seeking compensation.

The coauthor of Unveiling Islam, Caner in 2005 became the first former Muslim to head an evangelical seminary. Liberty Seminary removed him as dean in 2010 after bloggers challenged his testimony.

Kel McClanahan, attorney for Smathers, says Caner is dodging accountability.

Caner attorney David Gibbs III says Caner has the right to control how his work is distributed. "Just like music and [books], speech can have copyright protection," he said.

Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia, said the case could shape how courts understand "fair use" exceptions to copyright. "Copyright holders think a lot of that [criticism] is infringing; those who make such works think they are engaged in free speech," he said. "Courts struggle to draw the line."

Gibbs warned church leaders that the long online life of digital content increases the possibility of litigation. The attorney advises pastors to think twice before posting every sermon online. "The cyber-attack crowd aims to hurt and destroy Christian leaders," he said.

Autry says his intent was not to hurt Caner's ministry but to inform people about it. He felt that because he previously promoted Caner as a trustworthy spiritual leader, he now needed to say something.

"The damage," Autry said, "is probably best described as having one's trust violated."

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YouTube's Blocked Testimony