Will Viacom's public airing of YouTube's dirty laundry change the Web forever?

Google logoThe key issue at the heart of Viacom's case against Google and YouTube, filed in March 2007, concerns whether an Internet service that probably knows that files are traded or shown illicitly or without license there, deserves the "safe harbor" provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that protect ISPs from liability for their customers' actions. In a summary judgment motion filed yesterday with US District Court in New York and unsealed this morning, Viacom is bidding to have the judge wrap up the case -- an obvious signal that it believes its case is already strong enough.

As US law stands now, a service such as Grokster or the original Napster (not the Best Buy division that today uses that name) is liable when it intentionally establishes its service for the express purpose of trading in illicit files. It's especially liable when it finds some way to advertise itself for that purpose. An Internet Service Provider such as Comcast or Cox is not liable when its service is used for accessing one of these sites, when it doesn't advertise or offer these services explicitly, and when a customer can access them without direct intervention from the ISP. And a video site such as Veoh is not liable when any measure it might take to stop customers from sharing illicit files may also conceivably infringe upon the free speech rights of other customers who may not be trading such files.

Google, the current owner of YouTube, has been arguing the Veoh case in its own defense. But Viacom's argument -- which courts have been wrestling with for over two-and-a-half years and which we now know today -- is that YouTube is a different, special case. It's more like Grokster, it argues, in that it was founded on the principle of gathering an audience around illicit files.

"Defendants are liable under Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. v. Grokster Ltd., because they operated YouTube with the unlawful objective of profiting from (to use their phrase) 'truckloads' of infringing videos that flooded the site," reads the opening passage of YouTube's founders single-mindedly focused on geometrically increasing the number of YouTube users to maximize its commercial value. They recognized they could achieve that goal only if they cast a blind eye to and did not block the huge number of unauthorized copyrighted works posted on the site. The founders' deliberate decision to build a business based on piracy enabled them to sell their start-up business to Google after 16 months for $1.8 billion. The Supreme Court in Grokster found no legal or societal justification for such intentional copyright infringement."

In a talking points document released today (PDF available here), Viacom cites various e-mails from various YouTube and Google executives, including YouTube founders Chad Hurley (CEO) and Steve Chen (CTO). Assuming these excerpts were not taken out of context, which is possible, they indicate that YouTube's founders were clearly building up a high-audience business with illicit files at their core, with the intention of selling out to somebody as soon as possible.

One excerpt has Chen suggesting that YouTube, apparently during its startup phase, "…concentrate all our efforts in building up our numbers as aggressively as we can through whatever tactics, however evil." Another suggestion, by an unnamed YouTube exec in response to a non-excerpted suggestion -- apparently asking, where should we get all this content -- reads, "Steal it! . . . We have to keep in mind that we need to attract traffic. How much traffic will we get from personal videos?"

And one excerpt attributed to Chen suggests that the whole legal process of handling DMCA takedown notices is so long and dragged on, that by the time YouTube should ever comply with one, it would be too late anyway: "But we should just keep that stuff on the site. I really don't see what will happen. What? Someone from CNN sees it? He happens to be someone with power? He happens to want to take it down right away. He get in touch with cnn legal. 2 weeks later, we get a cease & desist letter. We take the video down."

Viacom's argument that Google knows what kind of trafficking goes on via YouTube is substantiated by evidence in the form of e-mails, evidently sent prior to its acquisition of YouTube, from executives objecting to elements of what they perceived to be its business model. One message from Google's then-VP of Content Partnerships David Eun (now with AOL) to CEO Eric Schmidt cautioned, "I think we should beat YouTube . . . but not at all costs. [They are] a video Grokster." And in another excerpt, an unnamed Google executive asks, "Is changing policy [to] profit from illegal downloads how we want to conduct business? Is this Googley?"

Evidence cited in Viacom's motion for summary judgment tells the story of how Google Video failed to be competitive against YouTube, even though its engineers persisted with efforts to filter out illicit content. One memo cited says Google Video may have been throwing out 90% of its uploads, for containing suspected copyrighted material or for being generally indecent.

"But Google's good intentions and compliance with the law were not paying off," Viacom argues. "YouTube was way ahead of Google Video in the race to build up a user base. Google executives understood that YouTube's success was largely due to what they euphemistically labeled its 'liberal copyright policy' of freely allowing infringing material. Losing the user race to YouTube because of the latter's copyright infringement, Google Video executives engaged in a 'heated debate' in 2006 'about whether we should relax enforcement of our copyright policies in an effort to stimulate traffic growth.' A top senior executive, Peter Chane, Google Video's Business Product Manager, argued point blank that Google Video should 'beat YouTube' by 'calling quits on our copyright compliance standards.' Chane specifically advocated switching Google Video to YouTube's 'reactive DMCA only' policy because 'YouTube gets content when it's hot ([Saturday Night Live's] Lazy Sunday, Stephen Colbert, Lakers wins at the buzzer)' and it '[takes us too long to acquire content directly from the [legitimate] rights holder.'"

It is that statement which Viacom appears to present as a smoking gun: a suggestion from a Google Video executive that it should acquire its competitor solely because its allegedly illegitimate business model is more successful than its own, legally compliant one.

In Google's memorandum in support of summary judgment in its favor, filed after Viacom, its attorneys do not take the tack of rebutting Viacom's scorching citations -- which, if substantiated, could theoretically become the basis for future criminal complaints. Instead, Google reiterates the argument that it's a service provider which, like Veoh, is entitled to safe harbor since it looks the other way, and does not actively seek infringing uploads.

Citing the Veoh finding, Google's attorneys argue, "What matters is that Veoh 'established a system whereby software automatically processes user-submitted content and recasts it in a format that is readily accessible to its users...Inasmuch as this is a means of facilitating user access to material on its Web site,' Veoh did not lose the safe harbor 'through the automated creation of these files.' YouTube is indistinguishable from Veoh in these respects."

YouTube, Google argues, did not have direct knowledge of the circumstances whereby the specific content Viacom claimed was infringed upon (much of it from Paramount) was shared with YouTube users. Since Viacom's arguments must, at some point, focus themselves upon the specific infringing of the content in question, the DMCA protects YouTube on that count as well, Google continues. But all that may be moot, Google points on, by virtue of the fact that under current US law, the alleged infringers must have directly profited from their actions. YouTube gains revenue through advertising.

Writes Google, "A service provider loses safe harbor eligibility only if the plaintiff can show both that the service provider had the right and ability to control the alleged infringements and received a financial benefit directly attributable to those infringements...As with knowledge, the DMCA's control inquiry is specific, not general. The analysis focuses on the service provider's legal and practical control over the particular infringing activity at issue. The statute's text makes that clear: The question is whether the service provider has the right and ability to control "the infringing activity" alleged by the plaintiff and to which a financial benefit is directly attributable."

A number of declarations in support of both motions were filed today. One supporting Google was particularly interesting, because it goes to specifically that last paragraph: It's from the owner of a marketing firm who promoted the works of recording artists who appear on MTV, a Viacom property. He claimed that some of the very works Viacom claimed were infringed upon through unauthorized uploading to YouTube, actually were authorized by none other than MTV itself, as part of the promotion of the artists under his contract.

If Google's interpretation of the law is affirmed, and if this gentleman's claims are proven, then this whole case could become history faster than a judge can even say "summary judgment."

Source: Betanews

Tags: Google, Internet, YouTube

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