YouTube's Win Over Viacom: A Victory for Innovation on the Web

Last Updated Jun 24, 2010 11:55 AM EDT

Yesterday a judge dismissed Viacom's (VIA) billion-dollar lawsuit against YouTube and its parent company, Google (GOOG). The decision ensured that American firms will remain global leaders in the creation of sites that rely heavily on user-generated content.

In essence, Viacom wanted to hold YouTube responsible for everything uploaded to its site, an unrealistic expectation given that 24 hours worth of video is uploaded to YouTube per minute. YouTube argued that it had fulfilled its responsibility by quickly removing anything Viacom flagged as infringing. It wanted the burden of finding illegal videos to stay with the copyright owners.

The judge agreed, affirming that YouTube was protected by the "safe harbor" clause Congress created in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. In fact, the court found that YouTube had been quite efficient about removing videos once they were flagged.

If the court had ruled for Viacom, dozens of sites that rely on user generated content would have been crippled. "Without the DMCA safe harbors, sites like YouTube, eBay, Blogger, Wikipedia, and Flickr simply wouldn't exist," wrote the Electronic Frontier Foundation. More importantly, the next generation of online startups would have been burdened with costly liability.

One of Viacom's legal arguments was that YouTube was similar to file sharing services like Napster, Grokster and Limewire. But the judge shot that reasoning down, quoting from Viacom's own lawyer, Michael Fricklas, who wrote, "The difference between YouTube and Grokster is staggering."

As I wrote earlier, Viacom's lawsuit was really a relic of an earlier era, when YouTube was rife with pirated material. In recent years YouTube has worked to create software that automatically scans for videos which infringe on copyright. And it has signed deals with hundreds of media firms to share the revenue from advertising on the site.

At a time when many European nations are enacting poorly conceived online copyright legislation, like Britain's Digital Economy Bill, this ruling confirms America's sensible approach to copyright and keeps the door open for innovation.

Image from Flickr user Josieshowaa Related Links

  • Ben Popper

    Ben Popper writes at the intersection of culture and technology. His work has been published in the NY Times, Washington Post, Fast Company, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic and many others. He lives at www.benpopper.com.