Viacom v Google: Who is the Least Cost Avoider?

I’m late to the party, but I wanted to say a few things about the District Court’s decision in the Viacom v. YouTube case this week and. This will be a four-part post, covering:

1. The holding

2. The economic principle behind it

3. The next steps in the case

4. A review of the errors in legal analysis and procedure committed by reporters covering the case

I’ve written before (see “Two Smoking Guns and a Cold Case”, “Google v. Everyone” and “The Revolution will be Televised…on YouTube”) about this case, in which Viacom back in 2007 sued YouTube and Google (which owns YouTube) for $1 billion in damages, claiming massive copyright infringement of Viacom content posted by YouTube users.

There’s no question of the infringing activity or its scale. The only question in the case is whether YouTube, as the provider of a platform for uploading and hosting video content, shares any of the liability of those among its users who uploaded Viacom content (including clips from Comedy Central and other television programming) without permission.

The more interesting questions raised by the ascent of new video sites aren’t addressed in the opinion. Whether the users understood copyright law or not and whether their intent in uploading their favorite clips from Viacom programming was to promote Viacom rather than to harm it, were not considered. Indeed, whether on balance Viacom was helped more than harmed by the illegal activity, and how either should be calculated under current copyright law, is not relevant to this decision, and are saved for another day and perhaps another case.

That’s because Google moved for summary judgment on the basis of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s “safe harbor” provisions, which immunize service providers from any kind of attributed or “secondary” liability for user behavior when certain conditions are met. Most important, a service provider can dock safe from liability only if it can show that it :

- did not have “actual knowledge that the material…is infringing,” or is “not aware of facts or circumstances from which infringing activity is apparent” and

- upon obtaining such knowledge or awareness “acts expeditiously to remove…the material” and

- does not “receive a financial benefit directly attributable to the infringing activity, “in a case in which the service provider has the right ability to control such activity,” and

- upon notification of the claimed infringement, “responds expeditiously to remove…the material that is claimed to be infringing….”

Note that all four of these elements must be satisfied to benefit from the safe harbor

The question for Judge Stanton to decide on YouTube’s motion for summary judgment was whether YouTube met all the conditions, and he has ruled that they did so.

For the details, see, "Viacom v. YouTube: The Principle of Least Cost Avoidance."

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