Landmark ruling in Viacom-YouTube case
By Julian Clover
Published: June 24, 2010 08.05 Europe/London

Viacom has lost its three-year old legal battle with YouTube after a New York Federal Court ruled that the video sharing website had not infringed the media giant’s copyright. The owner of MTV Networks and the Paramount film studio had been seeking $1 billion in damages.

The case had begun when Viacom accused YouTube of running “tens of thousands” of video clips that had been uploaded without permission. In the intervening period other actions were launched, including one by the Premier League, which was dismissed as a result of Wednesday’s ruling. Simultaneously broadcasters began to partner with YouTube, broadcasters such as the BBC and Channel 4 launching their own ‘channels’ on the site.

US District Judge Louis Stanton said in a 30-page ruling that YouTube had not broken the law because any items that had been placed on the site without permission were removed once YouTube had been alerted. Only when internet services had a specific knowledge of the legal status of the content would sites such as YouTube be in breach of a so-called “safe harbour clause” within the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

“This is an important victory not just for us, but also for the billions of people around the world who use the web to communicate and share experiences with each other,” said YouTube vice president and general counsel Kent Walker in a blog posting. “We’re excited about this decision and look forward to renewing our focus on supporting the incredible variety of ideas and expression that billions of people post and watch on YouTube every day around the world”.

Viacom had not done itself any favours during the action. Papers filed with the court revealed that the media giant had itself considered buying YouTube, acquired by Google for $1.76 billion in 2006. Worse, it had sanctioned the uploading of its content to YouTube even while the case progressed.

However, the media giant remains confident that it can win the case on appeal. “YouTube and Google demonstrated that required tools to limit piracy aren’t impossible to find or even that difficult to implement – they fixed the problem of rampant piracy on YouTube after Viacom filed this lawsuit,” read a company statement. “Before that, however, YouTube and Google stole hundreds of thousands of video clips from artists and content creators, including Viacom, building a substantial business that was sold for billions of dollars. We believe that should not be allowed by law or common sense”.

The Premier League case was brought in parallel after Viacom’s initial filing. Last year, Judge Stanton had dismissed claims for damages by the Premier League, ruling that they were not allowed for under the 1976 US Copyright Act. A claim for damages under the alleged infringement of foreign works not registered in the US was also thrown out.