Copyright Law and the Ocasio-Cortez Dance Video

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 15, 2021

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez A record 102 women — 35 of them newly-elected — were recently sworn in as members of the US Congress.

One of them was 29-year-old New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest congresswoman in US history.

The night before she was sworn in, a video of her as a teenager appeared online and quickly went viral.

Breakfast Club

In the video, Ocasio-Cortez is shown dancing barefoot with her Boston University classmates on a rooftop to the tune of “Lisztomania” by Phoenix, using dance moves from the 1980s movie The Breakfast Club.

The video had originally been uploaded to YouTube in 2010.

As the New York Times reported, the video-sharing was apparently meant as a video-shaming.

A Twitter account with the handle @AnonymousQ1776 published the video with the comment, “Here is America’s favorite commie know-it-all acting like the clueless nitwit she is.”

But most viewers found “AOC” (as she is known to her fans) adorable.

As the Times noted,

Molly Ringwald, one of the stars of “The Breakfast Club,” declared on Twitter that she was “in the club.” Another star of the film, Ally Sheedy, whose dance moves Ms. Ocasio-Cortez imitates in the video, endorsed the tribute. Phoenix, the band whose song plays in the video, sent congratulations.

Copyright Law

As Wired discussed,

the reason Ocasio-Cortez’ detractors were able to find the video on the internet in the first place is far more interesting than their criticism. The story demonstrates how copyright law is often used to squash free expression on the internet—and sometimes even potentially erase a video featuring a future member of Congress.

The Ocasio-Cortez video was inspired by another YouTube clip uploaded in March 2009 by a woman named Sarah Newhouse. The Newhouse video mixed the song with dancing scenes from 1980s “Brat Pack” movies like The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink.

The Newhouse video inspired dozens of copycat videos.


Harvard Law School intellectual property professor Lawrence Lessig used the videos as part of a talk he posted on YouTube, to illustrate a point he was making about how “remixing” is an important part of our culture.

As Wired noted,

Liberation Music, Phoenix’s record label, soon served Lessig with a takedown request under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, demanding the video be taken down for violating its copyright for “Lisztomania.” Lessig quickly filed a DMCA counter-notice, arguing the his video constitutes “fair use,” since the song was excerpted for educational purposes—ironically to teach people about why copyright laws can stand in the way of cultural production.


Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the owner of copyrighted material can send a notice to the owner of a website demanding that material posted without permission be removed.

A site that complies with such requests is shielded from liability for copyright infringement by its users.

In Lessig’s case, he teamed up with nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation to fight Liberation, and the case eventually settled.

Newhouse, however, had her entire YouTube account deleted after she was accused of copyright infringement three times.

Photo Credit: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, daddyodilly, Public Domain.

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