The first major verdict has been issued in the long-running feud between Google-owned YouTube and Viacom over copyright-infringement accusations, with a federal judge tossing out Viacom's $1 billion lawsuit and ruling that YouTube is in the clear.
It\'s been a bone of contention almost from the start: users uploading copyrighted content to YouTube. Joe Random would save a clip of "The Daily Show" to his PC, then upload it to the site for the rest of the world to consume. Viacom (which owns "The Daily Show") would protest and demand that YouTube take the clips offline, which it would do in relatively short order. But the process would repeat, with thousands of such clips hitting the Web every day, and YouTube complying, taking down whatever content Viacom asked them to remove.
It didn’t take long, though, for Viacom to sue. In 2007 (shortly after YouTube was acquired by the deep-pocketed Google), it asked for $1 billion in damages for copyright violation, arguing (in part) that YouTube induced users to violate its copyrights. The issue has since bounced back and forth from hearing to hearing, with the primary arguments on either side generally holding (a) that YouTube knew that infringing materials were being uploaded and refused to stop the practice and (b) that Viacom was actually uploading material itself to promote its shows.
It’s been quite the predicament, and now, three years later, we’re finally seeing some closure: Judge Louis Stanton wrote that YouTube is not liable for the infringement, citing “safe harbor” rules that have long protected operators of online message boards and other Web services, protecting them from liability for the actions of their users. Craigslist is perhaps the most famous company to rely on safe-harbor laws, arguing that, while it monitors its site the best it can, potentially illegal activity promoted there is the responsibility of those posting it, not that of Craigslist itself.
Viacom naturally says it plans to appeal, and the ruling could easily go the other way next time if a more copyright-friendly judge picks it up. This is a major issue that could ultimately make its way to the Supreme Court, as neither side in this fight seems willing to budge. Too much is at stake for both parties.
— Christopher Null is a technology writer for Yahoo! News.