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More Enemies at Google’s Gate: The Copyright Suit Grows

It was a busy day at the courts.  In unrelated intellectual property cases Google saw its list of adversaries expand and Microsoft received a $1.5b dollar judicial reprieve.  (a Metue article on the Microsoft news is here.)

google vs. viacom

For Google, it’s been copyright, copyright, copyright.   For months, the company has been battling with Viacom over YouTube and the claim that the popular video-sharing site is a conduit for copyright infringement; essentially a service encouraging copyright violation.

The billion dollar infringement suit was filed in New York as a class action complaint on May 4th.  Since then, plaintiffs have been lining up to participate.  Now, in addition to Viacom (which is the parent of MTV Networks and Paramount Pictures) and the English Premier League (soccer/football), eight new plaintiffs were revealed Monday.

Some of the new complainants include the National Music Publishing Association, the Finnish Football League and the Rugby Football League. Boxing promoter Knockout Entertainment Ltd and the French professional soccer league are also represented in the class.

Google didn’t release an official statement to comment on the addition of plaintiffs.  Instead, Google has held to prior comments that the suit is faulty; based on a misunderstanding of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

If the case isn’t settled out of court, it could take years to be resolved.  Hopefully, when that day comes, it will leave a decisive stamp and clear precedent on the often complex, sometimes contradictory body of code that is copyright law; especially the much maligned DMCA.  Such clear results may be an unrealistic expectation, however.  As Mark Twain once opined: “only one thing is impossible to God: to find any sense in any copyright law on the planet.” (Mark Twain’s Notebook May 23, 1903).

Primarily up for interpretation in the Google/YouTube case is a subsection of the copyright act called Section 512 (the Section is also called the "Online Copyright Infringement Liability Limitation Act").  The provision, which is some times referred to as the “Takedown Provision” or the “Takedown Safe Harbor,” sets rules and procedures by which a copyright holder can request a web service remove content that the copyright holder hasn’t authorized.  It also creates exemptions (e.g. limitations on liability) from penalties for those following the rules. 

Put in plainer words, Section 512 sets rules by which I can tell YouTube to remove my content from their site if someone posted it without my permission.   If I follow the procedures, and YouTube does too, than theoretically, there is no financial liability or further issue for YouTube.  The question for the courts is two parts. First, does YouTube even fit the definition of service providers that are entitled to these exemptions (they think they do), and then, second, were the procedures followed by YouTube.    In this case, those issues will be for the courts to decide.  (For those looking for more legalese there is a detailed review of Section 512 on Wikipedia.)

While not admitting any wrong doing, to try and address the copyright issues Google has promised to release a copyright filtering (a.k.a. digital fingerprinting) system within the next few months.  It has also sought discussions with many of the content owners that have claimed infringement.  The major record companies have largely reached agreements with Google through these discussions. 

Viacom and other publishers are, thus far, less willing to negotiate.  They are holding a firm line and, so far, leaving the issues for the courts.

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