Digital Legal Top Stories

YouTube win Viacom legal battle

By | Published on Thursday 24 June 2010

Well, that ended quicker than we expected. YouTube yesterday won its legal battle against Viacom when a US judge issued a summary judgment in the web firm’s favour in the two companies’ long running copyright infringement dispute.

As much previously reported, MTV owners 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. Some argued that was because the music-video-filled YouTube was such a big threat to MTV, the media firm deciding it would rather see its upstart rival go offline than go into business with them. Others subsequently argued that Viacom was pissed off with Google’s purchase of YouTube, because it had been considering bidding for the video site itself.

Either way, from the start YouTube argued it operated a take-down system under which it would remove any copyright infringing content once they were alerted to it by the relevant copyright owners. That, it claimed, meant it was protected by safe harbour clauses in America’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which protect responsible web firms which inadvertently host infringing content files for a short time.

Viacom argued that YouTube’s take-down system put too much onus on the content owners, who now had to monitor the YouTube platform for any infringement of their copyrights at their own expense, while the video site profited from any traffic generated by infringing videos between upload and take-down. Viacom’s legal team argued this can’t have been the intention of the DMCA. They also alleged that in its early days, YouTube only paid lip service to its take-down obligations under the DMCA, because it knew it was infringing videos that were generating most traffic.

The Viacom v YouTube litigation wasn’t the only lawsuit that tested the obligations of video sharing websites under the DMCA, though it was the most high profile. Earlier cases, including one involving Universal Music and Veoh, saw judgments generally side with YouTube’s interpretation of the safe harbour clauses in the US copyright act.

But Viacom hoped that internal documents from the early days of YouTube that suggested top execs at the company were being deliberately slow in taking down infringing content – and that one was uploading infringing content himself – would aid their case. It also made the lawsuit relate exclusively to YouTube’s operations prior to 2008, recognising that subsequent refinements of the video site’s take-down system did overcome some of the issues they had originally raised.

But in a summary judgment issued this week, and linked to by Google’s General Counsel yesterday on the company’s blog, the US courts decided that YouTube was indeed protected by the DMCA safe harbour provisions and could not be held liable for any copyright infringing content that has appeared on the video sharing website at any point in its history. The judgment says that [a] YouTube has always followed the process demanded by the DMCA regarding removing infringing content and that [b] the fact it had quickly removed about 100,000 of Viacom’s videos proved the DMCA’s take-down system works.

Needless to say, Google welcomed the ruling. In his aforementioned blog post, General Counsel Kent Walker wrote: “This is an important victory not just for us, but also for the billions of people around the world who use the web to communicate and share experiences with each other. The decision follows established judicial consensus that online services like YouTube are protected when they work cooperatively with copyright holders to help them manage their rights online”.

Equally needless to say, Viacom was less impressed with the judgement. Vowing to appeal the ruling, their General Counsel Michael Fricklas told the AFP: “Copyright protection is essential to the survival of creative industries. It is and should be illegal for companies to build their businesses with creative material they have stolen from others. This case has always been about whether intentional theft of copyrighted works is permitted under existing law and we always knew that the critical underlying issue would need to be addressed by courts at the appellate levels. Today’s decision accelerates our opportunity to do so”.