That McFarland teen Heather Traska has loved Disney for years sparkles in every frame of her videos, popular mash-ups of "Tangled," "The Lion King" and "Aladdin" with unique a cappella accompaniment and elaborate costumes.
But could that devotion have led her to an unwitting crime? According to copyright lawyer Daniel Nazer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, it's possible.
"The (presidential) administration wants to make streaming of copyrighted material a felony," Nazer said. "So if Heather’s work wasn’t fair use, she could potentially be guilty ... We think that’s totally contrary to freedom of expression, to punish people who make covers, mash up clips, and are being creative on YouTube.
"They might think something’s fair use, but if they're wrong they shouldn’t be risking a felony conviction."
In the United States, knowingly infringing copyright can trigger a maximum fine of $150,000 per instance. According to Nazer, Disney could either try to monetize Traska's work or ask for it to be taken down, neither of which it has tried to do.
"Fortunately, I haven't run into too many issues," Traska said, after a reader wondered whether Disney might object to her work. While the company "has every right" to pull her videos, "rarely have I seen Disney remove a video made by a fan."
"Arguably Heather’s work is fair use," Nazer said, "because it’s transformative," like fan fiction.
Nazer specializes in fair use, but he didn't want to say for sure whether Traska's work qualified. Copyright law is complicated, and takes into account how much of the copyrighted work was lifted, how much of an adaptation is original content, and if the new product or work is a market substitute for the original.
"In some cases, it's easy," Nazer said, like when "The Daily Show" uses a clip from a news show to make a political point. Copyright law tends to favor parody and criticism, ironically making Traska's tributes murkier territory than a critique.
Even if something is obviously fair use, companies may ask for it to be taken down anyway. Because the law favors bigger players who can afford lawyers, most users don't fight it, he said. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a "Hall of Shame" for companies that use copyright law as a bludgeon.
As one example, Nazer pointed to a YouTube video mash-up of "Twilight" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" that highlighted the former film's sexism — clearly fair use, but nonetheless the target of a Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown notice. After creator Jonathan McIntosh got a lawyer, Lionsgate rescinded its claim.
Were Disney to target Traska and others like her, it would be both "a bad way to treat their fans and a bad use of the law," Nazer said.
"What Heather has done here, leaving aside the issue of fair use, is something that is really great promotion for Disney," he said. "Companies can benefit by letting fans create new works like this. They build a community and maintain their interest.
"It’s really counterproductive for companies to be really strict and intolerant toward fan-produced works."