Viacom versus YouTube (Google)

In a landmark decision made June 23, 2010, Federal Judge Louis Stanton granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant Youtube, owned by Google, in Viacom International, Inc. v. Youtube, Inc..  The decision held Youtube was protected against claims of copyright infringement made by Viacom under 17 U.S.C. § 512( c). Order and OpinionViacom International, Inc. v. Youtube, Inc. was a $1 billion lawsuit  filed by Viacom in 2007.  Viacom accused Youtube of massive copyright infringement claiming that Youtube was intentionally uploading and displaying enormous amounts of copyrighted material that Viacom owned to their website.  Complaint.  Viacom owns many television networks as well as Paramount Studios.  Some of the copyrighted works Viacom claimed Youtube was allowing to be posted to their website and viewed thousands of times a day was “SpongeBob SquarePants,” “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” “The Colbert Report,” “Mean Girls,” etc.  The complaint stated that Youtube does not just allow users to post copyrighted material, but that Youtube promotes the infringement and then does nothing to prevent or stop it because of the significant profits they are making.

At first glance, the claims Viacom made against Youtube appear very strongly in favor of a ruling against Youtube for copyright infringement.   The determination was actually made in favor of Youtube though because of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998.  The DMCA is a law limiting the liability of service providers for displaying copyright material if all conditions are met.  The DMCA will protect a service provider when specific criterion are met:  1. The provider must not have the requisite knowledge of the infringing activity, 2. If the provider has the right and ability to control the infringing activity, it must not receive a financial benefit from the infringing activity, and 3. Upon receiving proper notification of the claimed infringement, the provider must expeditiously take down or block access to the material.  Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998.

In his opinion, Judge Stanton granted summary judgment in favor of Youtube because they met each requirement the DMCA put forth in order for a server to receive its protection.  The judge held that Viacom could not establish Youtube’s liability based on a general knowledge of infringement because the DMCA requires specific knowledge of infringement.  It was not enough for Youtube to know that there may have been some copyright infringement occurring on the website.  They would have had to have known specifically that third party users were uploading unauthorized copyrighted clips owned by Viacom, what those uploads were, and that Viacom did not specifically upload the material themselves for marketing purposes.  Sandoval.  Youtube was found to not have had the specific knowledge required to remove the DMCA’s protection because they took down thousands of copyrighted works within a day of receiving a cease and desist letter from Viacom.  The DMCA’s “notice and takedown” procedure was properly followed by Youtube when they immediately took down all material Viacom listed.  Therefore, Youtube continued to be protected by the “safe harbor” protection of the DMCA.  It was held that it was not Youtube’s responsibility to decide what uploaded videos were infringing on Viacom’s copyrights before the notice to takedown the material was sent by Viacom.  Business Week.

The decision has been very controversial.  One specific worry that Viacom v. Youtube creates is that there will be less copyright protection on the internet now.  Essentially, the DMCA will protect any internet server that displays copyrighted material as long as it cannot be shown that they knew copyrighted material was uploaded on their website or once they are notified that they take it down immediately.  Artists and companies like Viacom now have to fear that their copyrighted material may not be protected to the extent they want over the internet.

The decision could still be reversed if Viacom appeals.  If an Appellate Judge finds that the law should not protect internet servers to this extent then Google could be held liable.  If the decision is reversed a judge may look at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd. which held that “one who distributes a device with the object of promoting its use to infringe a copyright, as shown by clear expression or other affirmative steps taken to foster infringement, is liable for the resulting acts of infringement by third parties.”  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd. .  It is well known that extremely large amounts of material are uploaded to Youtube every day.  The entire purpose of the website is for third parties to be able to express themselves by uploading clips they want the public to see, many of which are clips that come from copyrighted works.  Looking at the decision in Metro-Goldwyn, it is possible that a judge could decide that by having a website like this in place alone is enough to be considered promoting infringement of copyrights.  On the other hand, a judge could also agree with the present decision that Google did not have the specific knowledge required and were not promoting copyright infringement simply by being a server of this nature.

As it stands now, other websites like Youtube are protected from liability for copyrighted material that third parties upload if the server meets the DMCA’s requirements.  If the standard set in Viacom v. Google is the only standard taken into account when ruling on internet-copyright cases , then it is the copyright owners that must do the policing to make sure their work is not being infringed upon.  This standard will remain unless Viacom appeals and the present decision reversed.  In the meantime, it is important to just keep an eye out for the direction that copyright law continues to take as more decisions are made.

by Angelica Campanaro, summer intern


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