Analysis Of Google And Viacom's Arguments Over YouTube: A Lot Of He Said/She Said

from the read-the-details dept

I've spent the last few hours going through the motions for summary judgment from both Google and Viacom in the YouTube case. If you'd like to kill a few hours yourself: There are few surprises made in the basic arguments by both parties. Viacom claims that YouTube knew about infringing content and should have taken it down (and that Google knew about this and then continued with that policy). Google claims that it's clearly protected by the DMCA's safe harbors. There are some interesting things raised in the filings however:
  • Viacom claims that YouTube employees uploaded infringing content themselves, and discussed this over email -- though, the filings carefully provide only fragments of the emails, which could easily have been taken out of context. And, even on top of that nowhere does Viacom explain how YouTube employees could distinguish which content was actually infringing and which was put up for promotional purposes or what was fair use. This is a major weakness in Viacom's motion.
  • Viacom's secondary arguments get weaker as you go down the list. It argues that because YouTube uses advertising to make money, that shows the company directly profits from infringement. That argument makes no sense -- because it would effectively wipe out any safe harbors for any commercial operation, which clearly was not the intent of Congress. Based on this argument, any ISP that hosts content from a paying customer loses its safe harbors. That's ridiculous on its face.
  • Viacom argues that Google could have blocked uploads with fingerprinting technology it had licensed, but fails to note the massive weaknesses in those fingerprinting technologies (which we still see thanks to Google's bad automated takedowns). It tries to bolster this argument by saying that Google refused to use the fingerprinting on Viacom content unless Viacom agreed to license its content to YouTube. Perhaps there's more to it than this, but I think that's also taking Google statements out of context. The way the fingerprinting works is that Google would need copies of the content to be able to recognize them -- and the only way to do that is if Viacom licensed works to them.
  • Then the arguments get really weak. Viacom says that Google isn't just a secondary infringer, but a direct infringer, due to the terms of service that say you're granting a license to YouTube, and because to work, YouTube converts uploaded video to Flash. This is a weird legal argument that has been rejected before.
  • The crux of Viacom's argument rests on trying to break the DMCA safe harbors because Google and YouTube execs knew that there was a lot of infringing content on the site. But Viacom's argument breaks down entirely when you realize it doesn't explain how Google could ever make the actual determination of which videos are infringing. Viacom tries to get around this with some legal tap dancing, basically saying that it doesn't matter and Google just should have known what was infringing and what was not. But that makes no sense. Viacom is basically saying Google should have had a magic wand to figure out what's infringing and make it disappear. That's impossible. No law could possibly require Google to do the impossible. The fact that some of the videos Viacom sued over were uploaded by Viacom itself proves this point clearly.
  • Viacom argues that because YouTube "licensed" its videos to Apple and Verizon Wireless phones, it shows that it's more than just a passive service provider. Again, this seems like a weak overall argument, as what YouTube was doing was licensing access to the videos in a more convenient format, not claiming control over the videos themselves.
  • Viacom's lawyers also have a bit of fun at the fact that some old emails relevant to the case were deleted, even though it's not that ridiculous that not everyone keeps all their emails. The motion also mocks Google and YouTube execs for developing "serial amnesia" when presented with "evidence." But, again, Viacom was asking people to remember specific sentence fragments (potentially taken out of context) from years-old emails.
  • The "big surprise" in the Google motion is that Viacom apparently tried to buy YouTube itself. While interesting as a historical nugget, I'm not really sure that really helps the case one way or the other. It doesn't change how Viacom may have viewed YouTube as a platform. The attempted purchase may just have been a way to try to co-opt it into a limited platform, like what happened with Napster.
  • Google argues that it has gone above and beyond the DMCA's requirements in providing tools to help copyright holders. Viacom's counter argument, of course, is that those changes are more recent.
  • For every claim made by Viacom that Google/YouTube execs made damning statements, it looks like Viacom's statements were even worse. For example:
    During these negotiations [to license content] Viacom deliberately allowed its content to remain on YouTube, in part because it thought that "having the content there was valuable in terms of helping the rating of our shows."
    Google effectively makes the case that Viacom knew the benefits of having its clips on YouTube, tried to negotiate with YouTube for a deal, and when Google came into the picture, basically Viacom just saw it as an easy money grab and massively upped its demands before suing. Google argues that the mass takedown and subsequent lawsuit was really just a negotiating ploy by Viacom to get an upper hand in the negotiations to squeeze more money out of Google.
  • Amusingly, Viacom notes repeatedly in its own filings that YouTube didn't want to take down its videos because traffic to YouTube would suffer -- but Google counters by pointing out that it did take down all of Viacom's 100,000 takedown requests within hours and traffic to the site did not suffer and, despite Viacom's expectations to the contrary, traffic to Viacom's own sites did not soar. In other words, despite Viacom's over-inflated sense of how important Viacom's videos were to YouTube, the actual evidence suggests that Viacom was very, very wrong.
  • Viacom tries to brush off the fact that it uploaded many videos itself, by saying (in a footnote) that most of those videos were clearly designated as being from Viacom. Google counters by pointing out that (a) this is not true and (b) Viacom repeatedly disguised who uploaded those videos on purpose -- even quoting Paramount's SVP of marketing saying that the clips "should definitely not be associated with the studio -- should appear as if a fan created and posted it." Among the users who uploaded Viacom clips on behalf of Viacom itself?
    MMysticalGirl8, Demansr, tesderiw, GossipGirl40, Snackboard and Keithhn
    On top of that, they registered with non Viacom email addresses, and even went to the local Kinkos to avoid uploading from Viacom directly. How Google was supposed to distinguish those clips from those uploaded by random users is not explained anywhere by Viacom, which is a hugely damning point against Viacom's case.
  • Further damning to Viacom's case -- the fact that Viacom regularly had to backdown on its takedown notices after it was realized that the takedowns were incorrect. This is a point that we've made before and is driven home repeatedly in Google's filing. If Viacom itself can't get it right -- when it holds the copyrights and some of the videos were uploaded by itself -- how the hell is Google supposed to know which videos are legit and which are not?
  • Even more amusing is the part that details how Viacom had incredibly complex and detailed rules with BayTSP (who monitored YouTube and sent the takedowns) over what should be taken down and what should be left up. Apparently, those rules changed every few days and the folks at BayTSP compared them to Crime and Punishment. Again, if Viacom required such a complex list of rules for its own partner, how could it expect Google to know what to do without knowing any of that information?
  • Google also points out that many of the clips in question have serious questions over whether or not they could be considered fair use -- and those are questions for a court to determine. It is both unfair and outside the scope of the law to expect a third party like Google to be able to make that kind of decision on the fly.
In the end, it will surprise no one that I find Google's arguments significantly more compelling than Viacom's. The one point on which Viacom is strongest is the emails from the very early days of YouTube, where the founders and some employees admit that they know there's a fair amount of infringement on the site, and they debate what to do about it, before taking a fairly liberal approach -- though, never an approach that removes their safe harbors (Viacom disagrees on that point). In fact, the weaknesses of Viacom's argument are driven home in that nowhere was it able to produce a single bit of evidence of YouTube founders/execs being aware of a specific infringing video. All of the quotes are about general infringement. The lack of a smoking gun email to the contrary really weakens Viacom's case -- and is a glaring absence in the motion.

What this comes down to in the end is a basic interpretation of what the DMCA really says and means with its safe harbor provisions. Viacom's interpretation would effectively gut the entire purpose of the safe harbor provisions, disqualifying pretty much any commercial entity that allows user created content from gaining safe harbor protections. Such a reading makes no sense as it would make the DMCA safe harbors effectively meaningless.

Google's motion, on the other hand, is quite compelling and highlights how even if execs are aware of general infringement across the site, it was impossible for them to distinguish what was authorized and what was not, as well as what was fair use and what was not. To require a third party like Google to make such determinations would effectively gut the ability of pretty much any user-generated content site to exist -- which, again, would clearly go against Congress' intentions.

Still, with these sorts of lawsuits, you really never know how things will play out -- and judges often get blinded by "infringement bad, must punish!" type arguments. Hopefully, in this case, reason prevails.

Update: Eriq Gardner over at The Hollywood Reporter basically came to the opposite conclusion and found Viacom's arguments persuasive. To him the discussions among YouTube founders is damning, though I still think there's a massive difference between saying "yes, there are infringing videos on the site" and "we know which videos are infringing" is a large and important gap -- and Viacom failed to close it.

Filed Under: copyright, dmca, fair use, videos
Companies: google, viacom, youtube

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  1. identicon
    George Ou, 19 Mar 2010 @ 10:00am

    You're very wrong about fingerprinting

    "The way the fingerprinting works is that Google would need copies of the content to be able to recognize them -- and the only way to do that is if Viacom licensed works to them"

    This is wrong.

    1. Fingerprinting technology (specifically Audible Magic in this case) only needs “reference fingerprints” from the content owner. These are basically tiny hashes that are smaller than this email that can be quickly distributed. You do not need an original copy of the content.
    2. Even if you did need an original copy of the content for it to work, there’s a huge difference between licensing content to YouTube for the purpose of a reference file for anti-piracy to the kind of broadcast license Google was demanding. e-piracy/

    Also, just because the UFC puts free content on Spike TV for promotional purposes, does that mean Spike TV can post all UFC PPVs without permission?

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