“Safe Harbors” Protect YouTube Against Ongoing Copyright Claim

Viacom International Inc., the umbrella company that owns MTV, sued YouTube Inc. in 2007 in an ongoing court battle stating that YouTube should be responsible for uploaded content that infringes Viacom’s copyright. At the beginning of confrontation, Viacom issued over 100,000 cease and desist notices to uploaded content on YouTube that Viacom claimed violated their copyright (“Viacom v. YouTube”). YouTube had complied with these notices and took down those videos. However, Viacom’s lawsuit entailed 1 billion dollars in damages and spurred a slew of extraneous lawsuits from sports team leagues and music corporations filing copyright infringement against YouTube. The main legal statute that has come into question with this type of lawsuit is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in 1998 that has a “safe harbor” section for network service providers that has four areas of protection. The four areas are “transitory digital network communications”, “system caching”, “information residing on systems or networks at direction of users”, and “information location tools” (“Digital Law Online: DMCA Safe Harbors”). By being protected by a safe harbor, the company cannot be forced to pay for reasons of copyright under one of the four areas listed above.

Here, the original judicial question is whether YouTube can be protected under one of those safe harbor options, and thus is not required to pay Viacom the 1 billion dollar settlement. If YouTube was not covered, Viacom has explicit right to defend their copyrighted material based on the United Stated Copyright Law (2011) section 501 which states that “the legal or beneficial owner of an exclusive right under a copyright is entitled, subject to the requirements of section 411, to institute an action for any infringement of that particular right committed while he or she is the owner of it” (“Copyright Law of the United States of America”). However, according to The Electronic Frontier Foundation, video hosting sites have been protected under the safe harbor section of the DMCA before and it would be precedent to protect YouTube in this instance. This website had a part in filing against Viacom’s claims in favor of upholding the DMCA safe harbors, so it may be biased against the plaintiff.

The Viacom v. YouTube legal debate has been ongoing since the initial lawsuit in 2007. Since 2007, the original suit was merged with a larger suit filed for summary judgment in 2010 that included the other complaining parties in addition to Viacom’s claims. However, that summary judgment was granted to YouTube. Viacom proposed appeal after appeal against YouTube stating that they induced the infringement of Viacom’s copyright. The final judgment in 2012 confirmed the previous rulings and again stated YouTube’s protection under the safe harbor section for all infringement except the cases YouTube knew of or were “willfully blind to”(McSherry). Stated in another Electronic Frontier Foundation’s article was that Viacom claimed that YouTube lost safe harbor protection because of its “general awareness of the infringement and, therefore, […] obligation to take commercially reasonable steps police it”. This claim also fell through in ruling because the court stated YouTube did not have a duty to monitor its users every activity. Viacom continued to push the appeal until March, 2014 where both companies settled out of court neither paying the other (Stetler). For YouTube, they may have lost some money by having to take the infringing clips down, but were ultimately saved from paying the $1 billion dollar damages claim because of the protection of the DMCA.

Viacom’s expectations of YouTube’s ability to police each and every user’s activity seem unreasonable based on the scale of how large YouTube’s network is. YouTube has millions of accounts and even more viewers watching videos uploaded every day. Viacom’s initial cease and desist initiative in combination with YouTube’s compliance may be the most realistic option for both the companies in the future. While it is clear to see Viacom’s stake in upholding their copyrighted material on one of the largest social networks available, the ability to hold YouTube accountable for all of its users’ content at any given point is unreasonable and best policed individually when an infringement is noticed.

“Copyright Law of the United States of America.” U.S. Copyright Office. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 May 2014. <http://www.copyright.gov/title17/92chap5.html>.

“Digital Law Online: DMCA Safe Harbors.” Digital Law Online: DMCA Safe Harbors. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 May 2014. <http://digital-law-online.info/lpdi1.0/treatise33.html>.

McSherry, Corynne. “Viacom v. Google: A Decision at Last, and It’s Mostly Good (for the Internet and Innovation).” Electronic Frontier Foundation. N.p., 5 Apr. 2012. Web. 15 May 2014. <https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2012/04/viacom-v-google-decision>.

Stetler, Brian. “Google, Viacom Settle YouTube Lawsuit.” CNNMoney. Cable News Network, 18 Mar. 2014. Web. 15 May 2014. <http://money.cnn.com/2014/03/18/technology/google-viacom-lawsuit/>.

“Viacom v. YouTube.” Electronic Frontier Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 May 2014. <https://www.eff.org/cases/viacom-v-youtube>.


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