Dec. 12, 2011 -- It may have started with the wedding of Tony Romo, the Dallas Cowboys' quarterback, to Candice Crawford in May. People magazine said the five-minute video they had made "hit the Internet looking more like a blockbuster movie trailer than nuptial footage" -- and soon it went viral on YouTube, complete with Coldplay's "Fix You" as theme music.
Now it's gone -- and so, apparently, are many wedding videos celebrating less-famous couples. The videographer who shot the Romo-Crawford video was threatened with a lawsuit for using music to which he had not bought the rights. He's settled, and agreed not to talk about it, and a chill has settled across the nice, warm world of weddings.
"Please don't use my name," said one wedding photographer who spoke to us. "We're just small fish. I don't want to be in the spotlight. They might just aim at me."
This photographer said he has now removed all the videos he previously posted on YouTube, Vimeo, or his own website with well-known music in the background. He said he can buy generic music for $50 for a three-minute track, but it cuts into his profits and his newlywed clients don't like it as much.
"We're just scared," he said. "We don't know what is going to happen to us."
Sending a Message
"I don't think there's a mass attack in general, but a strong message was sent," said Ron Dawson, a video producer in Atlanta who has shot many weddings. "There have been wedding videos online with music for years, and it came to a head because videos have been increasing in style and quality. This year a couple got a million views online."
A high-end wedding video can cost several thousand dollars. But Dawson said wedding videographers are generally small businesspeople, so the threat of a lawsuit is a big deal to them.
"Getting that letter in my inbox and as a fax was super scary," said the videographer who was threatened with the lawsuit. He was quoted -- carefully declining to say what video or music was involved -- in a conversation Dawson posted online at Dare Dreamer, a magazine for video producers. "I did have a video that went viral, we had used a very popular song on it, someone saw it and brought it to the attention of the label's legal team and from there they came after us."
The wedding videographers' dilemma is a reflection of life in the digital age. Twenty years ago, a photographer might have shot video of a reception, given the happy couple half a dozen copies of the edited version, and that would have been that.
But weddings have been changed by the Internet. A photographer now puts together a video -- or an elaborately-produced online slide show with background music -- and emails the link, for a fee, to the newlyweds' guests. This at a time when the music industry is under continual seige, undercut by people's ability to copy music digitally without paying for it.
What does all this mean for you, if you're getting married and want the day on video? Mainly, photographers say not to be surprised if you can't have your favorite music as the background track. If you picked a top-40 hit for your first dance, the photographer may be afraid to post it online. Your photographer is unlikely to be sued -- but may worry about it if your wedding video becomes a YouTube hit.
Jim Steinblatt, a spokesman for ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, said, "It would be rare that anyone would go after someone on a wedding video. Basically they're for family and friends."
But Dalita Keumurian, the director of marketing for The Harry Fox Agency, which collects license fees for music publishers, said, "If someone is using music, they should be getting permission."
The photographer we quoted at the beginning of this piece said he and others he knows worry they're easy targets. Even if there have only been a couple of high-profile legal cases, he said he can't risk one.
"We can't live without showing our work online," he said, "but because of the lawsuits we have to pull it off the web."