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Judge reaffirms original ruling in Viacom v YouTube case

By | Published on Friday 19 April 2013


YouTube has scored another victory in its long running legal battle with Viacom.

As much previously reported, MTV owner Viacom sued YouTube and its parent company Google in March 2007, arguing that the video sharing website, both before and after is acquisition by the web giant, had deliberately turned a blind eye to users uploading content that infringed Viacom’s copyrights, because the presence of such content generated much of the video site’s traffic.

Viacom wasn’t the only content owner to threaten legal action as YouTube became one of the biggest sites on the web in 2005, filled, as it was, at the time, with huge amounts of copyright infringing uploads. But most content owners negotiated licensing deals with YouTube and Google, getting a cut of any advertising revenue generated by their content.

Viacom chose not do a deal though, possibly because it saw YouTube as a big threat to its youth-orientated MTV network. Either way, the media firm sued accusing the video-sharing service of contributory copyright infringement. YouTube, predictably, insisted from the start that it could not be held liable for any infringement that occurred when users uploaded content to its servers without the permission of the content owner, because it complied with the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act by operating a takedown system, allowing content owners to request infringing content be removed.

Viacom countered that that takedown system, in the early days of YouTube, was deliberately shoddy, and anyway, allowing the web firm to circumvent liability for distributing infringing content in this way would put a huge onus on copyright owners to constantly monitor the video sharing site’s servers for newly uploaded infringing content, which – the media company reckoned – couldn’t have been the intent of Congress when passing the DMCA.

But in 2010 a US judge ruled in YouTube’s favour, saying that the video site did indeed have protection under the DMCA, even if its takedown system did put a lot of pressure on content owners to regulate the YouTube network. Viacom promptly appealed, and last year an appeals court expressed reservations about the original ruling, and ordered the lower court to have a rethink.

But, having done so, US District Judge Louis Stanton yesterday said he stood by his original judgement in this case. He wrote: “There is no evidence YouTube induced its users to submit infringing videos, provided users with detailed instructions about what content to upload or edited their content, pre-screened submissions for quality, steered users to infringing videos or otherwise interacted with infringing users to a point where it might be said to have participated in their infringing activity”.

Needless to say, Google welcomed the ruling while Viacom pledged to appeal for a second time.

A statement for the latter read: “This ruling ignores the opinions of the higher courts and completely disregards the rights of creative artists. We continue to believe that a jury should weigh the facts of this case and the overwhelming evidence that YouTube wilfully infringed on our rights”.

While Google’s Kent Walker said: “This is a win not just for YouTube, but for people everywhere who depend on the internet to exchange ideas and information”.

Of course since Viacom’s litigation began, YouTube has done much to improve and refine the way it operates its takedown system, automating some of the process, so that even if it ultimately lost this case, any ruling in Viacom’s favour would be unlikely to increase the video site’s obligations in this domain beyond what it is already doing voluntarily (though, obviously, the Google business would rather not pay any damages for past activities). However, the case does have influence over other user-upload web services, including Grooveshark, whose current takedown systems are arguably more akin to that YouTube was operating back in 2007.

Although there has been some inconsistencies in court opinions on cases revolving around DMCA safe-harbours and takedown system requirements, two key cases – against YouTube and now defunct Veoh – have ultimately ruled in favour of the digital firms over the content owners (further appeals pending).

Which is why the labels have been reluctant to sue Grooveshark specifically over the efficiencies of its takedown system, because there’s a high chance the controversial audio streaming site would win based on current precedent. Though, as previously reported, alongside the litigation, the content industries are also quietly lobbying in Washington for a refinement of the DMCA to better clarify (and preferably increase) web companies’ obligations in the takedown domain.