If you love an old-fashioned courtroom battle with a new media twist, the Google vs. Viacom copyright-infringement case makes for great entertainment. This lengthy (and particularly pissy) quarrel, which dates back to 2007, centers on Viacom’s claim that Google’s YouTube video-sharing site allowed users to upload more than 100,000 video clips from Viacom-owned networks and movie studios, including BET, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, and Paramount Pictures. Viacom’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, seeks $1 billion in damages.
Court documents made public today by the U.S. District Court provide some fascinating insights into the behind-the-scenes machinations and allegations in the case. Google, for instance, claims that Viacom employees and its marketing partners posted “a host of clips” from Viacom TV shows movies to YouTube, even while complaining publicly about their appearance on the video site.
The documents also reveal that Viacom attempted but failed to buy YouTube in 2006. Google successfully acquired YouTube in October 2006 for $1.65 billion.
Viacom first proposed a “content-partnership agreement” with YouTube in early 2006. Negotiations continued for months, but Google bought YouTube before the partnership was complete. Viacom then switched to a “strong-arm approach” to gain a better deal, Google alleges.
In a harshly worded statement on its website, Viacom says that the unsealed court documents “provide the evidence and legal basis for Viacom’s arguments that YouTube intentionally operated as a haven for massive copyright infringement.”
It goes on to claim that “countless” internal YouTube communications show that YouTube planned to profit by copyright infringement: “By [YouTube’s] own admission, the site contained ‘truckloads’ of infringing content and founder Steve Chen explained that YouTube needed to ‘steal’ videos because those videos make ‘our traffic soar.’ ”
Not surprisingly, YouTube officials see things differently. In a blog post, YouTube chief counsel Zahavah Levine asserts that the safe harbors in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) protect online services such as YouTube from copyright liability, provided the services remove unauthorized material once they’re notified of its existence on their site. Levine also states that content owners (e.g., Viacom) are better equipped than service providers (YouTube) to police their copyrighted content online.
The likely outcome of the Google vs. Viacom fight? Years of courtroom maneuvers, millions in attorney fees, and ultimately a revenue-sharing agreement between the two sides. But the courtroom documents do provide a fascinating glimpse into the behind-the-scenes battles that rage when billions of dollars are at stake.