District Court Rules YouTube Protected by DMCA Safe Harbor Provisions in Viacom Copyright Infringement Suit
By Chinh Vo – Edited by Gary Pong
Viacom Int’l Inc. v. YouTube, Inc., No. 07 Civ. 2103 (S.D.N.Y. June 23, 2010)
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On June 23, 2010, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York granted Google’s motion for summary judgment in a copyright infringement suit brought against its video-sharing service YouTube by media company Viacom.
In dismissing the suit, Judge Louis L. Stanton held that YouTube was protected from Viacom’s copyright infringement claims under the “safe harbor” provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (“DMCA”), 17 U.S.C. § 512. These provisions give Internet service providers immunity from copyright liability for user-uploaded material so long as the providers remove copyrighted material promptly after receiving a takedown notice from the rights holder. The district court’s ruling was embraced by Internet companies as a positive step in the continued evolution of user-generated websites, but also strongly rebuked by some as making it more difficult for copyright holders to protect their works.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation provides links to the parties’ briefs. The New York Times and Ars Technica provide summaries of the case. Wired discusses the case in the context of other recent rulings involving the DMCA.
In 2007, Viacom initiated an action against YouTube seeking $1 billion in damages for copyright infringement after tens of thousands of videos containing Viacom content were uploaded to YouTube by users. A number of class actions – filed against YouTube on behalf of sports leagues, music publishers, and other copyright holders – followed and were consolidated with Viacom’s action. Both sides filed motions for summary judgment. The district court’s ruling in favor of YouTube, which applies to all parties to the lawsuit, shot down Viacom’s claim that YouTube had lost safe harbor protection under the DMCA because the website knew many of its users were uploading copyright-infringing videos. Though the court conceded that a jury could find that YouTube was “not only generally aware of, but welcomed, copyright-infringing material being placed on [its] website,” it ruled that “mere knowledge” of infringing activity was “not enough” for liability.
Looking at the legislative history of the DMCA, Judge Stanton reasoned letting “knowledge of a generalized practice of infringement in the industry, or of a proclivity of users to post infringing materials, impose responsibility on service providers to discover which of their users’ postings infringe a copyright would contravene the structure and operation of the DMCA.” Instead, he found that the DMCA requires the service provider to have “knowledge of specific and identifiable infringements of particular individual items” before being held liable. Judge Stanton further noted that this DMCA notification regime “works efficiently: When Viacom over a period of months accumulated some 100,000 videos and then sent one mass takedown notice on Feb. 2, 2007, by the next business day YouTube had removed virtually all of them.”
In so holding, the court implied that the burden of policing copyright infringement under the DMCA falls mainly on the copyright holder, rather than on service providers. Since Viacom brought its lawsuit, YouTube had taken major steps to prevent users from uploading copyrighted materials, including developing a filtering system called Content ID. In its cross-motion for summary judgment, Viacom stated that it would not be seeking damages for infringement occurring after YouTube implemented copyright filtering, implying that it was asking the court to interpret the DMCA’s safe harbor provision to be conditioned upon service providers implementing similar, possibly costly copyright filters. The court’s ruling strikes down such an interpretation, and can be seen as a boon for fledgling service providers with limited resources.
On its blog, Google declared the decision a victory “for the billions of people around the world who use the Web to communicate and share experiences with each other.” The case, however, is likely not over, as Viacom has announced plans to appeal the decision to the Second Circuit.
Chinh Vo is a 2L at the Harvard Law School.