Viacom Vs. YouTube

Remember Viacom’s $1 billion-plus copyright infringement lawsuit against YouTube and Google, the video channel’s owner?

Filed in 2007, the lawsuit seemed pretty clear cut with Viacom accusing YouTube of violating many of the media giant’s copyrights by hosting pirated clips of shows like Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” on YouTube servers.

As it turns out, the case isn’t all that simple. Court docs released in March indicate at least one YouTube exec was in favor of hosting other companies’ copyrighted goods, while Viacom apparently wanted YouTube to respect its intellectual property and at the same time serve as a conduit for the media giant’s promotional efforts.

The formerly sealed documents were released because both sides are trying to convince U.S. District Judge Louis Stanton that he should decide the case without a trial.

According to the documents, there was a time when Viacom didn’t act so negatively against YouTube. Although Google purchased YouTube in November 2006, the docs revealed that Viacom tried to talk the Internet company into partnering on a joint bid only a few months before Google closed its $1.76 billion acquisition. The documents also revealed that Google unsuccessfully offered Viacom $590 million for licensing rights to the company’s videos.

But forces within the Viacom empire were apparently eyeing YouTube as early as 2005. That’s when subsidiary MTV Networks tried to convince Viacom execs that acquiring the video site be “a transformative acquisition for MTV Networks/Viacom” that would make the media company “the leading deliverer of video online.”

Apparently the folks at MTV Networks and Viacom weren’t just pondering a YouTube takeover, but were also concerned that another Web site, specifically News Corp.’s MySpace, might acquire the video outlet.

One of the more interesting developments in the lawsuit is Google’s claim that Viacom employees continued to upload video to YouTube even after the company’s execs publicly accused the video site of infringing upon Viacom’s copyrights.

Google said in its court filing that Viacom not only embraced YouTube as a promotional vehicle, but also had its own employees along with some third-party marketers post Viacom-owned clips on the video site.

Furthermore, Google maintains Viacom spent months compiling a gigantic list of alleged infringements for one massive takedown notice. Calling the maneuver a “find-and-hold-strategy,” Google claimed Viacom wanted to create “one dramatic event” that would generate publicity and result in traffic decreasing for YouTube while at the same time increasing the number of eyeballs gazing on Viacom’s Web properties.

But it didn’t turn out that way, according to Google’s filing. Viacom issued the takedown order Feb. 2, 2007, and YouTube removed the videos in question within 24 hours. YouTube’s numbers did not fall nor did Viacom’s viewing stats rise. Viacom filed suit against YouTube and Google one month later.

There are two sides to every story, of course, and Viacom’s court filings revealed behind-the-scenes moments at YouTube that were hardly complimentary.

One example is an e-mail exchange between YouTube co-founders Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim.

“Jawed, please stop putting stolen videos on the site,” Chen wrote on July 19, 2005. “We’re going to have a tough time defending the fact that we’re not liable for the copyrighted material on the site because we didn’t put it up when one of the co-founders is blatantly stealing content from other sites and trying to get everyone to see it.”

However, after the documents were unsealed, YouTube tried to play down the e-mail, saying it was about aviation videos that had nothing to do with possible infringing material.

Apparently Google was concerned about copyright problems on YouTube even before it acquired the video site. Internal documents obtained by Viacom indicate Google execs saw YouTube as a “rogue enabler” of copyright infringements, and described the site as “completely sustained by pirated content.”

Despite all the accusations both sides have aimed at each other, the nut of the lawsuit is still about infringement. Viacom has claimed YouTube knowingly allowed Viacom-owned video to be posted on the site.

Google’s position is that YouTube adhered to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which calls for service providers to remove copyrighted material as soon as possible once the content owners issue notice.

Although the recently released court documents contain enough embarrassing moments for all parties involved, no information emerged that could help either side emerge victorious. The question is still about whether YouTube’s business practices violated Viacom’s copyrights, but the answer may not be as clear cut as either side claims.

Rabidly Not Guilty

For more than 10 years, an MP3 warez outfit known as “Rabid Neurosis” allegedly conducted a massive copyright infringement operation, uploading songs and entire albums to their own private file-trading network. Members had access to gigantic libraries that included not only pirated music but also illicit copies of video games, software and feature films.

But it’s tough keeping such a mammoth operation a secret. In September 2009 the U.S. Justice Department indicted several members of Rabid Neurosis, also known as RNS, for conspiracy to commit criminal infringement. Although some RNS members turned state’s evidence and/or pleaded guilty, at least two decided to take their chances in court.

Well, guess what? They won.

On March 19 a Houston jury acquitted Matthew Chow of all charges. Chow’s attorney, Terry Yates, said his client was not a willful copyright violator. At least, not as defined by current laws.

“Our position was that we accepted the government’s proof as they offered it, but that he did not do it willfully, as it is defined by the law,” Yates said, blaming his client’s arrest on the fact that he was one of the few RNS members that could be identified, according to the Houston Chronicle.

But Chow’s lawyer portrayed his client as a “Tuesday ripper” – someone who would buy a new CD, rip the disc’s tracks and upload to RNS file-sharing sites. While Chow’s actions weren’t exactly legal, they weren’t any different from those of millions of song-swappers. Sure, Chow probably infringed on copyrights, but the court decided his actions didn’t qualify as criminal infringements.

RNS was founded in 1996 and within three years the group claimed to have illicitly distributed more than 6,000 music titles a year. Most members did not know anything about their comrades other than screen names attached to messages and files.

Chow wasn’t the only person acquitted by a jury. A jury found Adil Cassim of California not guilty of a similar charge. If convicted, Cassim and Chow would have faced up to five years in prison and fines of up to $250,000.