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Viacom Sues YouTube Over Copyrights

Washington Post | March 13, 2007
Frank Ahrens and Howard Schneider

Entertainment giant Viacom Inc. -- home of cable networks such as MTV and Comedy Central -- is suing Google Inc.'s YouTube for $1 billion, alleging the video Web site knowingly violates copyright law by posting unlicensed Viacom content, such as clips from "The Daily Show."

YouTube, which allows anyone to post video to the Web to be viewed by a global audience, includes both user-generated video and clips produced by professional content-creators, such as Viacom. The Web site was purchased by Google in October for $1.65 billion.

In October, YouTube said it began purging Comedy Central clips from its site. But in February, the company demanded that YouTube remove more than 100,000 clips of Viacom shows. Also in February, Viacom agreed to license much of its content to Joost, a nascent YouTube rival.

Viacom alleges that YouTube does little or nothing to prevent users from posting copyrighted videos from appearing on its site, largely because such popular videos -- which include clips from Comedy Central's "South Park" and "The Colbert Report" and Nickelodeon's "SpongeBob SquarePants" -- help drive viewers to the ads that appear on YouTube.

"Defendants know and intend that a substantial amount of the content on the YouTube site consists of unlicensed infringing copies of copyrighted works and have done little or nothing to prevent this massive infringement," reads Viacom's complaint, brought in a New York federal court. "To the contrary, the availability on the YouTube site of a vast library of the copyrighted works of plaintiffs and others is the cornerstone of defendants' business plan."

The Viacom suit alleges that YouTube's attempts to protect copyrighted material have fallen short.

Although YouTube touts the availability of purported copyright protection tools on its site, at best these tools help copyright owners find a portion of the infringing files, and, as to that portion, only after the files have been uploaded," the suit reads.

Google told the Associated Press it had not seen the lawsuit.

The lawsuit is reminiscent of the battles several years ago over music file sharing, when sites such as Napster came under fire for letting users share digitized songs with each other without compensating the artists or record companies.

Those fights among the record industry, Web companies and users in part produced the situation that exists today -- where legal sales of online music have proliferated and changed the way the recording industry works.

The spread of broadband technology has now provided the typical home computer user with enough speed and bandwidth to conveniently watch videos or share files -- and pushed arguments over video content to the fore. Traditional broadcast outlets are worried about how to keep audiences tuned to their channels -- and their paid advertising -- or at least get a slice of the revenue generated by Web companies.

YouTube took root initially as a site for users to post home videos, known as a place to watch quirky pet routines or for would-be comics to practice their shtick. But it expanded rapidly to become one of the central sites for video content of all sorts. Its purchase last year by Google promised to marry YouTube's popularity with the marketing and advertising clout of one of the Web's most dominant corporate players.

As it grew, so did tension between the company and the entertainment industry whose content was drawing viewers to the site.

YouTube and Google executives have argued that the presence, for example, of clips from Comedy Central on the Internet only makes the network more popular and serves as a promotional tool that entertainment companies should be glad to exploit. They have reached licensing agreements with some major content providers and have pledged to develop technology that would keep unlicensed content off of the site.

But the two companies have also come under widespread criticism for a cavalier approach to protecting content rights.

Microsoft's general counsel recently rebuked Google for its plans to post hundreds of thousands of books on line without negotiating rights with authors and publishers. And Internet and entertainment entrepreneur Mark Cuban earlier this month subpoenaed Google for the names of YouTube users who posted a version of the South Korean monster movie "The Host" online a week before Cuban's company was to debut the film in the United States.



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