While Hollywood is often known as one of the groups most fiercely committed to protecting copyrighted works, a recent case shows that even in Tinseltown, the veto power of intellectual property owners is not absolute.

And what a case it is. The Guardian reports:

Producers of the most successful porn movie of all time, Deep Throat, have lost a legal battle against the makers of a biopic about its tragic lead, Linda Lovelace. A New York judge ruled on Monday that Lovelace, the 2013 biographical drama starring Amanda Seyfried as the title character, does not infringe copyright of the infamous 1972 porn film that inspired it.

Deep Throat’s producers had argued that three key scenes, two involving oral sex and one in which Lovelace can be seen driving in her Cadillac, “reproduced dialogue word for word, positioned the actors identically or nearly identically, recreated camera angles and lighting, and reproduced costumes and settings”.

After viewing both movies Judge Thomas Griesa demurred. “Deep Throat is a pornographic film containing 17 scenes of explicit sexual content,” he wrote in his ruling, which was covered by The Hollywood Reporter. “Conversely, Lovelace is a critical biographical film that documents the tragic story of Linda Lovelace and provides a behind-the-scenes perspective on the filming of Deep Throat. It does not contain any nudity.”

The decision will presumably cause some relief in Hollywood, which routinely recreates famous scenes for biographical films. Had the ruling gone differently, movies such as My Week With Marilyn, the 2011 film that depicted the shooting of scenes from the 1957 rom-com The Prince and the Showgirl, might conceivably have found themselves mired in legal difficulties.

Yes, that’s right, the pornographers behind Deep Throat sued not because another film used their footage, but because the filmmakers behind Lovelace mimicked the shots they made in order to lend authenticity to the film’s depiction of its subject’s career. Yes, they were the same shots, but on a different camera, with a different cast and crew, on a different set, as part of a different film.

It’s not just the lurid nature of this case that should tempt the reader to laugh. The entire theory underlying it is laughable. Imagine, for instance, that the estate of Richard Wagner sued every artist who set a composition in the key of E flat major, because the overture to Das Rhinegold is set in E flat major, or that the estate of Charles Dickens sued for every time the phrase “dead as a doornail” was used, and you have some idea of the degree of over-generalization involved. Granted, both the works of Wagner and the works of Dickens are in the public domain, but one could just as easily imagine similarly ridiculous ideas coming from the estates of authors whose work is still under copyright.

But there is a more fundamentally entertaining element of this case. That is, that is set up a fight between different elements of the film industry over exactly the sort of copyright legalism the industry frequently relies on in order to protect its almost deliberately obsolete business model. Unfortunately, what is not so entertaining is that, in cases where a studio’s financial and legal might can’t be brought to bear, such a copyright claim could easily have strangled legitimate artistic expression.

Suppose, for instance, that an independent filmmaker set out to create the exact scenes depicted in Lovelace with exactly the same degree of precision, and then released those scenes on YouTube. YouTube currently employs what is arguably an exceedingly overzealous copyright protection regime, which in some cases even blocks the accounts of independent critics and Let’s Play producers, because the background music in the very films and/or video games they are producing was licensed by the film/game producers but not by the users themselves. Never mind that this sort of usage clearly falls under Fair Use. YouTube blocks it anyway. So if that can be covered, why wouldn’t YouTube’s content bots flag the shots used in Lovelace, if they really are so exact as to be nigh indistinguishable from the original?

Answer: They would, and there would probably be nothing the user in question could do about it. Granted, YouTube is a private company, not the United States government, but the reason its copyright policy has to be so stringent is intimately tied with current copyright policy. Consider that 100 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute. If even one of those hours contains a copyright violation, then in a single day, YouTube could be liable for as much as $200 million in damages. In fact, under current copyright law, a single year of copyright lawsuits could potentially cost a company like YouTube close to $80 billion, even if only 1 percent of their content was infringing, provided the studios asked for maximum damages. Even with minimum damages, in fact, the price tag would be close to $400 million. If you were potentially on the hook for at least one third the GDP of Zimbabwe every year, you’d employ a stringent copyright protection system as well.

In other words, unless you’re a major motion picture studio, you probably can’t make Lovelace the way it was filmed and expect to get away with the same leeway, even though if you did, you’d win in court. The fact that companies like YouTube are forced to resort to extra-judicial means of copyright enforcement that frequently fly in the face of Fair Use law, or that an independent filmmaker can have their livelihood wrecked by a contentless claim, ought to make all of us choke, Deep Throat or no.