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Self–Policing Copyright Online: Industry Flips their Siren

copyright issuesIf someone provides a service that can be used by their patrons to break laws, there are legal questions of responsibility that get asked.  With user-generated content, and the websites that act as repositories for it, these issues center on copyright liability.  It’s a question of how much responsibility a site that acts as a forum should take. 

Is a service like YouTube responsible for policing their site and actively looking for infringement?  Or is it enough to remove an offending article (video/etc) when notified it’s a copyright violation (via a formal  DMCA “Take Down Notice”) ?  The experts aren’t in agreement.  The Digital Millennium Copyright laws provide guidance but in many cases the legislation falls short and interpretation is being sent the courts.  As of now, there’s already a billion dollar case on dockets with more likely to follow.

So, rather than wait for court or Congress, Thursday a group of broadcasters and web power houses,  a mix of content owners and distributors,  announced they would take the responsibility themselves.   Industry’s own police force is on the job.  The group which includes Viacom (MTV Networks, Nick, etc), Disney, Microsoft, MySpace (Fox Interactive Media), CBS, NBC Universal, and video sites Veoh and Dailymotion are aiming to set a common industry standard for principles and procedures. It’s their hope that if they agree on practices, lawsuits can be avoided.

In soundbytes executives from many of the companies involved chimed in and championed the value of this new initiative:

•Steve Ballmer at Microsoft called the principles being set an “important step in establishing the Internet as a great platform for video content.”  
Viacom’s president, Philippe Dauman called them “a framework for intellectual property to live in harmony with technical advances.”
Disney’s Bob Iger said they “offer a road map for unlocking the enormous potential of online video.”

That’s a lot of hope and hype vested in principles not yet fully developed.  I wonder if it’s realistic.  There has to be some question as to how detailed such principles can be, whether a consensus is even possible given the differing interests of those involved.  If the gun control lobby and the NRA were locked in a room and asked to reach a compromise, it’s hard to believe they’d walk out with anything but a stalemate.  Here the poles aren’t as far apart, and the issues not as divisive, but it’s still questionable that a consensus can be reached.

On a positive note, at the very least, the companies are starting from a couple mutual agreements. The first is recognition that they’re better off taking the bull by the horns and addressing their own fate than leaving it to courts or Congress.  The second, somewhat redundant to the first,  is knowledge that the absence of a compromise hurts them all.

Copyright is a messy issue. Just getting going is an achievement. And as a starting point, they’ve already agreed to require the implementation of “commercially reasonable” content identification technology by the end of the year. Via database and filtering tool, it’s hoped they can identify infringing material at the time it is posted.

Noticeably absent from the group is Google, owner of YouTube.  That’s not much of a surprise.  Google’s working on its own filtering technology. They released a test version two days ago.   After investing time and money, they’re not likely going to listen to others telling them what that technology should do.  Nor are they motivated to give it away to potential competitors. 

It’s also likely that Google’s absence is consequence of their ongoing lawsuit with Viacom over just these kinds of copyright issues.  As a defendant, it’s not in their interest to participate in anything that could be construed as an admission of guilt, or even any wrong doing.  Sitting on the same bench with Viacom on a trade group but opposite them in court over the same issue just doesn’t look good.

Down the road, after law suit issues are settled, I’d expect Google to likely participate.  Being the lone wolf then would just make them an unnecessary target.  They can avoid that as a participant if they follow guiding principles (assuming they’re reasonable and broad in scope) and that’s even if they choose to implement them in their own way.   

Until then, Industry can sit around a round table and try and reach a consensus. And to get them started off in the right direction, I hope they studied Mark Twain. He once quipped “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)


Related Content:
Minefields and Timebombs: A Deeper Look at Copyright and Net Video
Slingbox and Copyright Issues
Google Q3 Earnings
Google v. Viacom Lawsuit
Dailymotion Financing
Veoh Series C Financing

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