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Viacom Loses Google/YouTube Lawsuit

Google has won a “motion for summary judgment” in its bitterly fought lawsuit with Viacom over YouTube. This ruling effectively ends the case. Google has won, at least in this court. Viacom vows to appeal.

Viacom had sued YouTube/Google for copyright infringement surrounding the posting of scores of clips of Viacom-owned programming (e.g., Jon Stewart) on YouTube. Viacom had sought damages for infringement that might have run more than a billion dollars.

This is a major victory for Google, which can still be appealed by Viacom. Reportedly Viacom will appeal; however it’s unlikely the company will succeed. Here’s Viacom’s statement about today’s ruling:

We believe that this ruling by the lower court is fundamentally flawed and contrary to the language of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the intent of Congress, and the views of the Supreme Court as expressed in its most recent decisions. We intend to seek to have these issues before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit as soon as possible. After years of delay, this decision gives us the opportunity to have the Appellate Court address these critical issues on an accelerated basis. We look forward to the next stage of the process.

The granting of the motion means that even if all the facts were as Viacom has alleged in its complaint and as presented to the court that it would still not be entitled to a finding of liability and damages against Google. Here’s how Google described the ruling:

Today, the court granted our motion for summary judgment in Viacom’s lawsuit with YouTube. This means that the court has decided that YouTube is protected by the safe harbor of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) against claims of copyright infringement. The decision follows established judicial consensus that online services like YouTube are protected when they work cooperatively with copyright holders to help them manage their rights online.

Google characterized it as not just victory for Mountain View but “also for the billions of people around the world who use the web to communicate and share experiences with each other.”

Google defended the case and moved for summary judgment under the “safe harbor” provision Digital Millennium Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 512(c), which protects service providers (e.g., webhosts/ISPs) against liability for copyright infringement if certain conditions are met.

Read the court’s full 30-page opinion (.pdf) — if you dare.

Postscript: Gary Price alerted us to a long statement/editorial about the ruling penned by Viacom chief counsel Michael Fricklas:

We are disappointed with the judge’s ruling, but confident we will win on appeal . . .

This case has always been about whether intentional theft of copyrighted works is permitted under existing law and we always knew that the critical underlying issue would need to be addressed by courts at the appellate levels.  Today’s decision accelerates our opportunity to do so.

If Viacom is trying to make law that bolsters copyright perhaps this loss is an ironic opportunity to do so. Another loss at the appellate level could result in a trip to the US Supreme Court, which can refuse to take cases.

The big irony of the case is that Viacom was arguably not damaged by its shows’ unauthorized exposures on YouTube but benefited from them. There’s also evidence that Viacom executives knew what was going on and were pleased about it.

Still the copyright owner should be allowed to control the distribution of his/her/its content. Striking the right balance between copyright control and “fair use” in the digital age is a tricky one that the law has arguably not yet been able to strike.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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