Battle of the Titans

Google and Viacom are at each other’s throats right now over over copyright concerns.  The title of this post is not just bluster; it pits Google against the media conglomerate Viacom.  The story is interesting for a few reasons and actually sets the stage for our discussions for Wednesday quite nicely.  The story pits two corporations against each other in a struggle for both corporate dominance and legal superiority.  Thus, it reminds us that copyright law that can pit individuals against corporations can also pit companies against each other.  For its part, Viacom has spent a huge amount of time and money alleging that YouTube knew about the copyright violations that were prominent on the site in its early days.  They have damning quotes citing the YouTube founders themselves commenting on the illegal activities of many of their users.  As was mentioned in the first Salon article that we read today, YouTube has survived because it has claimed that its service is NOT intended primarily for illegal activity, while Napster was almost entirely designed to be used for piracy.  If Viacom can prove that YouTube was actually aware of the piracy on its site and that YouTube did little to prohibit the piracy that was directly contributing to YouTube’s (and, later, Google’s) bottom line.

Google, on the other hand, has not hesitated in combatting Viacom’s charges.  First, Google has noted that it has developed ground-breaking technology that locates and disables copywritten content, as many viewers of silent clips can attest.  It also notes that its technology gives copyright holders the option to display ads on the bottom of pirated content and have those funds be directly relayed to the copyright holder.  Google continues by saying that this option is actually one of the more common responses to piracy, suggesting that YouTube’s model may allow companies to actualy effectively monetize piracy.  Then, Google essentially blames Viacom for the confusion regarding the clips that have remained on YouTube.  Incredibly, as Google’s official documents have revealed, Viacom simultaniously uploads vidoes (often surrepitiously to create “buzz” for new shows) and takes other “pirated” videos down.  Viacom is seemingly so large that it cannot effectively coordinate these activities, as evidenced by Viacom’s insistence that Google take down content that Viacom produced and uploaded.  (Actually, you might not want to blame Viacom the next time a video is taken down, since they seem to outsource this work to this company.)  With inconsistent inforcement and conflicting messages, YouTube argues that it cannot effectively protect Viacom’s content in this atmosphere.

Usually, I am sympathetic to Google, and I think that Google’s legal argument here is pretty sound.  YouTube is not designed as a piracy service, and Google has basically made it incredibly easy for companies like Viacom to either take down pirated content or monetize it in a way that pays for the content that was pirated.    On the other hand, when you have the founder of YouTube saying that pirated content makes YouTube’s “traffic soar” and when Google confessed that YouTube was “sustained by pirated content” before the merger, you have problems with Google’s argument that the service is not intended as a way to pirate content online.

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