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Viacom’s long running YouTube dispute settled

By | Published on Wednesday 19 March 2014


The long-running legal squabble between YouTube and Viacom about the way the former handled takedowns from copyright owners in its early days of operations has finally come to a close with one of those no-fun-at-all out of court settlements.

As much previously reported, MTV owner Viacom accused YouTube of deliberately allowing copyright infringing content to be posted by users to its platform because it knew such unlicensed videos generated good traffic. YouTube countered that it always operated a takedown system allowing rights owners to request unlicensed content be removed, and in doing so enjoyed protection from copyright infringement claims under America’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

The case was important to the wider content industries – including even the record companies that had actually done licensing deals with YouTube by the time this litigation got going – because it tested quite how the so called ‘safe harbour’ of the DMCA would work.

The record companies and movie studios reckon that the DMCA too readily allows the operators of platforms that let users post content (or which aggregate content through automated means) to circumvent liability when they end up hosting copyright infringing material, by saying that even the most shoddy of takedown systems provides protection for said platform owners.

Of course since Viacom went legal, YouTube has enhanced its takedown system way beyond what the DMCA demands. However the media giant wanted compensation for infringement pre those refinements, while the wider content industries were hoping a win for the MTV owner would force other websites still operating less sophisticated takedown processes – Grooveshark springs to mind – to step up their rights management activities.

But in court, at first instance, YouTube won, dashing all those hopes and dreams. Though Viacom, of course, appealed, and an appeal judge raised various concerns about the original ruling, forcing a rethink in the lower court. But having done some rethinking, last April a judge reaffirmed the original ruling. So Viacom appealed again.

Now the two sides have reached an out of court settlement, meaning no further judicial consideration will be given to this specific dispute, or the wider issues of takedown systems and DMCA protection for digital platforms. Terms of the settlement are not known, but sources say no money will change hands, and more likely YouTube and Viacom will forge some sort of partnership to generate future revenues.

The two companies said in a statement: “This settlement reflects the growing collaborative dialogue between our two companies on important opportunities, and we look forward to working more closely together”.

As for the wider debate about the DMCA, and how YouTube’s competitors operate their takedown processes, most attention on that issue in the content industries is now focused on Washington anyway, where the record and movie industries’ lobbyists hope to force refinements in law to remove the perceived loopholes in the current system.