YouTube Comes Out On Top In Battle With Viacom

Techies and freedom of speech advocates are cheering the recent court decision which ended (temporarily at least) the three year battle between the internet giant YouTube (owned by Google) and the media titan Viacom. The ruling was in favor of YouTube, dismissing Viacom’s claims that YouTube is responsible for ensuring that copyrighted materials are not uploaded on their site, citing that YouTube had fulfilled its obligations under the Digital Millennium Act. Proponents of user-generated media welcomed the ruling as a means of preventing creative censorship by the media industry.

Truth Dig | A little background: The Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s safe harbor principle means that sites like YouTube aren’t legally responsible for what Viacom would call piracy unless those user-driven sites fail to promptly remove copyrighted material after being alerted by the copyright holder. The judge in this case pointed out that YouTube took all of a day to remove offending content once the media conglomerate issued a mass takedown notice.

Each side was able to embarrass the other during this three-year trial. Viacom unearthed e-mails sent by YouTube’s founders acknowledging that users were uploading copyrighted content. Google’s legal team, however, discovered that Viacom was hiring stealth marketers to impersonate YouTube users and upload Viacom videos, then issuing takedown notices for those same clips.

YouTube is actually quite timid in its approach to copyright law and has come under fire from activists such as Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig. For example, the site summarily deletes videos and audio when its scrubbers automatically detect copyrighted content, regardless of whether that video falls under fair use protections. However, such overcompensation probably helped Google and YouTube win this lawsuit.

Huffington Post | Stanton “blessed the current state of play on the Internet,” said Eric Goldman, a Santa Clara University associate professor who specializes in high-tech law. The affirmation was cheered by Internet service providers and free-speech groups who believe the Digital Millennium Copyright Act helps give more people an outlet to express themselves.

“Without this decision, user-generated content would dry up and the Internet would cease to be a participatory medium,” said David Sohn, a lawyer for the Center for Democracy & Technology.”

Viacom, the owner of popular cable channels such as MTV, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon, called Stanton’s decision “fundamentally flawed” and vowed to appeal. That virtually ensures a legal brawl that already has dragged on for more than three years will spill into 2011 and perhaps beyond.

“Copyright protection is essential to the survival of creative industries,” said Michael Fricklas, Viacom’s general counsel. “It is and should be illegal for companies to build their businesses with creative material they have stolen from others.”

Slate | Viacom says that it has no objection to how YouTube operates now—its beef is with YouTube’s early practices. So why press on, when YouTube has reformed itself? Because a ruling in Viacom’s favor would have much wider repercussions. It would shift the balance of power between Web companies and entertainment companies, requiring sites to essentially ask permission or seek licenses from Hollywood and the music labels before innovating. Some of the world’s biggest Internet companies—not just YouTube, but also Facebook, Amazon, Yahoo, eBay, Flickr and others—would never have been able to get off the ground had they been required, as struggling startups, to constantly police their networks for potentially infringing material.

You might argue that the site’s capacity to investigate its network is irrelevant; if startups are aware that their sites are filled with stolen stuff, shouldn’t they do something about it?

Well, but who’s to say what’s stolen? Sure, YouTube’s founders thought that that some of the stuff on their site didn’t look legal—but we also know, in retrospect, that some of it was authorized, secretly uploaded by Viacom itself. Fortunately, there is a common-sense way to decide whether a certain video should be online: If the content owner objects, take it down. That system works pretty well as it is. Yes, this becomes more difficult when sites achieve the vast scale of YouTube, which now sees about 24 hours of video uploaded every minute. But innovations like Content ID show that instead of fighting about copyright in court, Web sites and entertainment companies can work together to solve the potential for mass copyright infringement. This is a much more creative and useful approach than a lawsuit, and YouTube’s victory will ensure more such collaborative efforts between Web companies and entertainment companies. I’m sorry I ever argued that we should look for another way.

NPR | Well, there is of course the off-chance that on appeal they could win. Right now, all the experts Ive talked to dont see it. But I think a lot of people are saying what this is really about is politics. A lot of companies, including Viacom, dont like the digital millennium copyright act because in fact it is up to them to look for places where their copyright is being violated. And they want to change the law.

There is some sense that the Obama administration has an interest in this, and particularly Vice President Biden has shown a lot of sympathy to Hollywood. So, I think they’re hoping that maybe Congress will go back and change the law so that they’re not so much worried about YouTube, really, but its the next start-up, right? Its some next small company that comes along. They want to be in a position to bargain and they want to be in a position where they can really make more money off their video. They want control.

And this been an issue from the get-go. There’s sort of a war between Hollywood and the folks up north in Silicon Valley over these issues.

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