YouTube wins landmark $1bn Viacom case

A big win for Google, as a judge throws out a copyright case against its video-sharing site.

Last Updated: 21 May 2012

A landmark victory for Google in its epic legal battle with Viacom, the US media company that had accused YouTube of infringing its copyright by hosting clips of its content. After a three-year trial, a US judge has ruled in Google's favour, arguing that YouTube was doing its bit to prevent infringement by taking the clips down as soon as it was told about them. Google is hailing this as a major triumph for the YouTube content-sharing model, and other social media sites will also be breathing a sign of relief. But it's a setback for content providers, as they desperately try to work out how to make money from the internet...

The lawsuit was first filed in 2007, just six months after Google had bought YouTube for $1.6bn. Viacom accused YouTube of 'massive intentional copyright infringement'; it said it had become frustrated after making than 100,000 demands for YouTube to remove its content, suggesting there were 160,000 unauthorised clips on the site (viewed 1.5bn times between them). ‘Promoting the unlicensed use’ of clips from Viacom channels like MTV and Comedy Central had helped YouTube become the largest video-sharing site in the world, it argued (a bit narcissistic, you might say).

The internet is a friendly place, though, and before you could say 'vested interest', the likes of Facebook, eBay and Yahoo waded in to defend Google. They pointed out that a provision in US legislation called the ‘safe harbor’ law prevents companies from being sued if they remove copyrighted material as soon as they are notified. And according to the judge, YouTube had taken this responsibility seriously: of the 100,000 videos that were reported to it in one day (February 2 2007), ‘virtually all’ had been removed the next day.

To make matters worse for Viacom, the company was found to have been using YouTube to do a little light guerrilla marketing around the same time it filed the lawsuit. Court documents showed the company had been posting videos under pseudonyms to ‘look stolen’, in order to drum up interest in its shows – exactly the kind of behaviour it was supposedly trying to prevent. Whoops.

Nonetheless, Viacom says it intends to appeal the ruling, calling the judgement ‘fundamentally flawed’. And given how much is at stake - and the far-reaching implications for online content-sharing generally - that's hardly surprising. There's still a culture clash going on here: new media companies like Google claim that people should be able to share stuff for free, but the traditional media companies argue (not unreasonably) that this is unfair to the people who actually produce the content (particularly since Google makes money by selling ads against the content). So far the former have been in the ascendancy - but with the likes of Rupert Murdoch starting to erect paywalls around their content, the old guard are starting to strike back. This is unlikely to be the last dispute of this type.

In today's bulletin:

Pension changes: retirement reinvigorated, or working until you drop?
High street sales still falling - despite the World Cup
Prime Minister ousted after tax fiasco (in Australia)
YouTube wins landmark $1bn Viacom case
Letters from Malawi: What is China doing here?

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