Copyright Class Action: YouTube and Google Face Another Legal Front

By Pete Salsich III

Is YouTube guilty of massive copyright infringement?  Or is it protected by the so-called "safe harbor" of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. 512(c)?  Yet another lawsuit now seeks to determine the answer to that question. 

(For a good primer on the DMCA's Safe Harbor provisions, see this very helpful FAQ at the internet law collaborative Chilling Effects Clearinghouse.)

The first big copyright challenge to YouTube's business model came last summer with a lawsuit filed by Robert Tur, a Los Angeles photojournalist whose video footage of the beating of Reginald Denny in the post-Rodney King verdict riots in 1992 became world-famous.  See Robert Tur v. YouTube, Inc., No. 2:06-cv-04436-FMC-AJW, United States District Court for the Central District of California, July 14, 2006.  Tur alleged that his Denny footage, along with copyrighted footage of the OJ Simpson chase and other events was posted on YouTube without his consent and viewed more than 1,000 times.  YouTube has defended by claiming that it is an Online Service Provider (OSP) protected by the DMCA safe harbor because it is not aware of and does not receive a financial benefit from the presence of infringing works on its site and its notice and take-down provisions meet the statute's requirement that infringing works be quickly removed.  YouTube filed a motion for summary judgment on the basis of this defense, which is currently set to be heard on May 21.  Tur has also filed a motion for summary adjudication on more narrow grounds, specifically challenging YouTube's claim that it does not receive a financial benefit from the presence of infringing works on its site.  This motion is also currently scheduled to be heard on May 21. 

The second front opened up in March of this year, when Viacom filed suit against YouTube and its parent Google, alleging massive copyright infringement of hundreds of thousands of Viacom properties.  See Viacom International, Inc. v. YouTube, Inc., No. 1:07-cv-02103 (LLS), United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.  Like Tur, the Viacom case will likely turn on whether YouTube's business model fits within the safe harbor provisions of section 512(c).     

Most recently, just days after filing its Answer in the Viacom lawsuit, and while it awaits the summary judgment ruling in the Tur case, YouTube and its parent Google were hit with another legal challenge to its highly successful but highly controversial business model.  This time it comes in the form of a class action complaint filed by the Football Association Premier League Limited (the top division of English soccer) and Bourne Co. (an independent music publisher in New York). 

Many of the contours of this lawsuit are similar to Tur and Viacom, but the class action approach is a new angle.  For one thing, you too might be a class member if you own the copyright or relevant exclusive rights in a registered copyright or certain sound recordings that have appeared on YouTube any time after December 15, 2005.  Obviously, that potential class is enormous, and probably renders many of YouTube's most fervent devotees potential plaintiffs against it.  I'm not going to try to address all the class certification issues that may come up, but suffice to say that will be a battle in itself.

One of the main substantive challenges brought by the plaintiffs in all three of these cases focuses on YouTube's claim that it does not derive a financial benefit attributable to the presence of infringing material on its site.  YouTube sells advertisements that run along side its video clips, including infringing clips, but these ads are not directly triggered by or connected to any particular video clip, infringing or otherwise.  There can be no doubt that YouTube has made huge amounts of money from these ads, and the plaintiffs all argue that YouTube would not be making the money it has but for the presence of so much infringing material on its site.  This could ultimately be a decisive factor in these cases, in part because a court could find YouTube outside of the safe harbor without having to address the propriety of its notice and take-down procedures.

It will be interesting to watch if any more suits are filed, or if other potential plaintiffs will wait for a key ruling in one of these cases.  The Tur case could lead the way depending on how the court rules on YouTube's pending summary judgment motion.  While the Central District of California's ruling will not be binding on the Southern District of New York, it will likely carry significant weight. 

Almost certainly aware of this, and obviously interested in the pending motions on YouTube's assertion of the DMCA's safe harbor defense, last week Viacom and NBC Universal asked permission to file an amici curiae ("friends of the court") brief in support of Tur's claims on this issue.  According to the court's electronic filing database, however, on Tuesday the court denied this request, finding that the brief was not offered to aid the court in its decision-making (as required for submission of such briefs), but was in reality "an effort by parties engaged in similar litigation against Defendant, to intervene in this case for their own benefit."  Like the rest of us, Viacom and NBC will just have to watch from the sidelines.

We'll be watching these cases closely, and should have more analysis of some of the specific legal issues later. 

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Comments (1) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Erich Vieth - May 11, 2007 2:47 PM

Pete: Thanks for your succinct analysis. These many brewing legal disputes make you wonder how many of these issues were contemplated by Google when it was deciding to purchase YouTube.

Congratulations on the launch of Fair Use Blog!

Erich Vieth

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