SAN FRANCISCO — Uri Geller became a 1970s superstar and made millions with an act that included bending spoons, seemingly through the power of his mind.
Now, the online video generation is so bent out of shape over the self-proclaimed psychic's behavior that he's fast reaching the same Internet pariah status as the recording and movie industries.
Geller's attempts to silence his detractors have extended to the popular video-sharing site YouTube, landing him in the center of a raging digital-age debate over controlling copyrights amid the massive volume of video and music clips flowing online.
Geller's critics say he and others are abusing a federal law meant to protect against online copyright infringement, and that YouTube and other Web sites are not doing enough to combat frivolous claims.
At issue is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA, which makes it easy for Geller and others to persuade Internet companies to remove videos and music simply by sending so-called takedown notices that claim copyright ownership. Most companies, including YouTube, do almost nothing to investigate the claims.
"All it takes is a single e-mail to completely censor someone on the Internet," said Jason Schultz, a lawyer for the online civil rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is suing Geller over an unflattering clip posted on YouTube for which he claimed a copyright ownership.
For nearly as long as Geller has been bending spoons and moving compass needles with the wave of a hand, professional magicians have been loudly debunking his claims of psychic ability.
A new generation of critics led by 30-year-old Brian Sapient of an organization called the Rational Response Squad have taken their crusade online. Sapient and others recently posted several video clips to YouTube demonstrating how Geller allegedly uses simple sleight of hand in his act.
One slow-motion clip shows Geller quickly placing a small magnet on his left thumb before purporting to move the needle of a compass in front of a live television studio audience in Israel, where Geller was born. Another includes Geller's infamous "Tonight Show" flop, in which Johnny Carson exposed Geller by providing his own spoons and other props.
In March, San Bruno-based YouTube Inc. took down many of the clips and suspended Sapient's account when Geller sent takedown notices claiming he owned the copyrights to the unflattering clips. That touched off an online tempest that has made Geller the subject of widespread derision and ridicule on several popular blogs like Boingboing.net.
"Uri Geller — the man who got rich 'bending spoons with his mind' — isn't just a con-artist, he's also a copyright abuser," wrote one of the tamer bloggers linked by Boingboing.
The video and Sapient's YouTube account were restored two weeks later after Sapient complained. It also turned out that Geller owned no more than eight seconds of the 13 minutes of video, according to Geller's own court filings.
But Geller is still suing Sapient in federal court in Philadelphia, accusing him of copyright infringement. Sapient says the clips are protected by First Amendment law allowing "fair use" of copyrighted material.
"Put in its simplest terms, this case is about theft, not speech," read court documents filed last week on Geller's behalf.
Geller, who has become nearly as famous for his prolific litigation as for his alleged psychic abilities, knows his way around the court system. He unsuccessfully sued longtime nemesis James "Amazing" Randi at least three times for defamation, stemming from Randi's own efforts to unmask Geller as a fraud, though he lost several other cases lodged against his critics throughout the years.
Geller, who lives in London, referred calls to his Philadelphia lawyer, Richard Winelander, who conceded that Geller probably didn't foresee the firestorm his lawsuit would inspire.
"This thing has spun out of control," he said.
Winelander said the takedown notices and lawsuit were motivated by
Geller's brother-in-law, business associate and filmmaker Shipi Shtrang, who got upset when he saw that the eight-second video he made appeared among Sapient's 13 minutes of video. Winelander said Sapient also aims to profit from the clip by driving traffic to his own Web site.
Sapient uses a pseudonym because he says he receives numerous death threats from those opposed to the anti-religious beliefs touted on his Web site.
Sapient and EFF have countersued, accusing Geller of misrepresenting to YouTube that he owned the disputed clips, and abusing the DMCA, which shields Internet service providers from lawsuits as long as they immediately honor those takedown notices. It's the fifth such federal lawsuit EFF has filed against people who sent bogus takedown notices to YouTube and other online video forums. EFF has not lost.
Legal scholars and Internet watchdogs say the explosion of freely available online video and music has been accompanied by a surge of abusive copyright claims such as Geller's.
Most recently, EFF successfully sued choreographer Richard Silver to stop sending takedown notices to YouTube claiming videos of people performing the "Electric Slide" — sometimes at weddings — were violating his copyright on the dance.
There's also a growing frustration that resolving copyright disputes is being left largely to YouTube and other Internet service providers that are taking down material with scant investigation.
"There is a clear trend toward more pressure on Internet Service Providers to play a bigger role in policing the Internet," said John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School.
For instance, YouTube removed some 150,000 clips from its site after Viacom Inc. complained. Viacom is also suing YouTube and its parent company Google Inc. for $1 billion in damages because it says the site is illegally allowing copyrighted material like television sitcoms to be posted.
YouTube and Google have denied any wrongdoing, citing their practice of removing videos as soon as a copyright owner sends a notice of unauthorized usage.
Ricardo Reyes, a spokesman for Google Inc., which purchased YouTube for $1.76 billion late last year, defended the DMCA and the takedown notices.
"The trick is that you are breaking the law when you knowingly send notices for videos that you don't hold the copyrights," Reyes said. "It's a good solution."