Judge throws out Viacom's copyright suit against Google
SAN FRANCISCO — In a major victory for Google in its battle with media companies, a federal judge in New York on Wednesday threw out Viacom's $1 billion copyright infringement lawsuit against Google's YouTube, the No.1 Internet video-sharing site.
The ruling in the closely watched case could have major implications for the scores of Internet sites, like YouTube and Facebook, that are largely built with content uploaded by their users.
The judge granted Google's motion for summary judgment, saying the company was shielded from Viacom's copyright claims by "safe harbor" provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Those provisions generally protect a website from liability for copyrighted material uploaded by its users as long as the operator of the site takes down the material when notified by its rightful owner that it was uploaded without permission.
Viacom, which sued Google in 2007 and accused it of copyright infringement after tens of thousands of Viacom videos were uploaded to the site, had argued that Google was not entitled to those protections because it had deliberately turned a blind eye and profited from rampant piracy on YouTube.
But Judge Louis L. Stanton of U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York sided with Google, saying that while the company certainly knew that copyrighted material had been uploaded to its site, it did not know which clips had been uploaded with permission and which had not.
Google and groups supporting Internet companies hailed the decision, saying it would protect not only YouTube but also other sites that host user-generated content.
''This is a victory for the Internet and for the people who use it," said Kent Walker, Google's general counsel, in an interview. "The decision will let a whole new generation of creators and artists share their work online."
Walker said the decision "was an affirmation of the emerging legal framework and ratifies the rules we have all been living under."
But Viacom, the owner of Comedy Central, MTV and Nickelodeon, said it would appeal the ruling, which it said was fundamentally flawed.
''Copyright protection is essential to the survival of creative industry," Michael Fricklas, Viacom's general counsel, wrote in a blog post. Fricklas said that before YouTube put in place a filtering mechanism to more easily detect copyright infringement, the company had built itself on pirated material and sold itself to Google for $1.65 billion.
''YouTube and Google stole hundreds of thousands of video clips from artists and content creators, including Viacom, building a substantial business that was sold for billions of dollars," Fricklas said.
Legal experts said that the ruling blessed YouTube's practices for dealing with copyrighted material, as well as those of many other sites that handle user-generated contented in a similar fashion.
''The ruling should give online service providers a lot of comfort that copyright owners aren't going to be able to force them to change their behavior or put them on the hook for problems that their users create," said Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at the Santa Clara University School of Law.
Forcing companies like Google to police every video uploaded to their sites "would contravene the structure and operation of the DMCA," Stanton wrote, using the shorthand for the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
''The present case shows that the DMCA notification regime works efficiently: When Viacom over a period of months accumulated some 100,000 videos and then sent a mass take-down notice on February 2, 2007, by the next business day, YouTube had removed virtually all of them," Stanton wrote.
Stanton also rejected comparisons between YouTube and other Internet companies that had been found to violate copyrights, like Grokster.
The case has revealed the tensions between Google and media companies over copyrights. Since its filing, though, those tensions have eased substantially, as YouTube has set up an automated system to detect and block infringing videos and has signed revenue-sharing agreements with more than a thousand media companies.
But media companies remain concerned that they will continue to lose control over their content as more of it becomes digital, making it easier to copy.
Documents produced as part of the case proved embarrassing for both companies. E-mail messages from YouTube's founders, Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim, for example, suggested they were willing to overlook the pirated videos on the site as they tried to increase the traffic to the site and sell the company. For its part, Google produced e-mail messages that showed that Viacom employees and contractors were uploading copyrighted clips to YouTube even as the company was complaining about copyright infringement. To a large extent, the case addressed past conduct, as Viacom said it was not seeking damages for any actions since Google put in its filtering system, known as content ID, in early 2008.
But Michael S. Kwun, a lawyer at Keker & Van Nest who previously worked at Google, said the decision would ensure that Internet companies were not legally required to develop such a system and could expect legal protection as long as they took down content when copyright holders complained. "I have no idea how much money YouTube spent on developing its content ID system, but if that was required for any new startup, you wouldn't see any," Kwun said.