Service allows companies to block content

YouTube has set up a lost-and-found desk for unauthorized video content.

After nearly a year of delays, the Google-owned online video powerhouse is launching its Video ID service, through which media companies can “claim” videos that have been uploaded to YouTube without permission.

Service, which has been beta-tested by Disney, Time Warner and others, gives media companies the option of blocking their copyrighted content from the site, allowing the content to continue playing for the promotional upside or requesting that YouTube split advertising revenue with them.

“We are looking to build working relationships with media companies, to give the rights owners control and to maximize their choices,” said David King, YouTube’s product manager. While YouTube has previously licensed technology from Audible Magic to scour the site for infringing music, it decided to build the Video ID service on its own.

YouTube was supposed to introduce fingerprinting technology in 2006 but has frustrated Hollywood with its delays and unfulfilled promises regarding the launch date. Many competing video websites, like MySpace, implemented Audible Magic antipiracy filtering earlier this year. Delay also meant that Movielabs, a Silicon Valley R&D lab run jointly by the studios, couldn’t include it in a comparison of 11 fingerprinting technologies that it began last year.

Still, execs at several congloms said the launch is a positive development and that they plan to participate.

Content owners will upload material to the site — even files as long as a three-hour Peter Jackson opus — so that YouTube can assemble a database. Then, as users upload video to the site, they will be compared to the content in the database. Any media company can use the service, regardless of whether it has a formal relationship with YouTube. That means even Viacom, which is suing Google for more than $1 billion, could be a participant.

“We’re delighted that Google appears to be stepping up to its responsibility and ending the practice of profiting from infringement,” said Viacom general counsel Mike Fricklas. But the new system won’t necessarily make Viacom’s concerns about past infringement vanish.

The site won’t be specific about its revenue-sharing deals, but some sources estimate that at least 70%-80% of the revenue could go to media companies that choose to allow their content to stay on the site and collect on the related advertising.

But, as it deploys what has been called “content filtering” or “content fingerprinting” technology, the leading videosharing site will be buffeted between two forces. One is lawsuits from rights holders like Viacom and Prince, who last month threatened to sue YouTube for allegedly encouraging copyright violation. The other is YouTube users, who get steamed when the site takes down videos that make incidental use of copyright material, especially parodies or commentaries that are likely covered by the “fair use” provision in U.S. copyright law.

“I have not seen a filtering technology that could understand the nuances of fair use,” said Corynne McSherry, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. EFF is handling several cases in which content was allegedly removed from YouTube for spurious reasons.

YouTube won’t divulge how the new system works — for instance, whether it would nix a movie review that incorporates 20 seconds of footage from “Knocked Up,” but not one containing just 15 seconds.

“We don’t want people to steer around (the technology),” said Zahavah Levine, YouTube’s chief counsel.

YouTube execs insist the Video ID service isn’t a response to Viacom’s $1 billion lawsuit, filed in March. “We continue to believe that the lawsuit is without merit,” said Levine.

The Video ID service could pave the way for YouTube to sell and display more advertising on its videos, once it gets media companies to give it the go-ahead; fear of inserting ads into infringing videos has kept YouTube from running very many spots.

“Until this technology was in place, there was no reason for them to go out with an ad model and say to people, ‘We’re making a lot of money from advertising,’ because then suddenly, the lawsuit threat triples,” said Forrester Research analyst James McQuivey.

Viacom, for one, is not yet sold on YouTube’s ability to generate significant revenue from ads. And Viacom and its media brethren may try to demand minimum guaranteed payments from the site rather than settle for a percentage of ad revenues.

In its suit, Viacom also claims that having to register content in order for YouTube to block it is an undue burden; it asserts that the Netco should be able to preemptively block some obviously infringing videos like pirated episodes of “South Park.”

But most studios seem to accept that they’ll have to do some work to help sites like YouTube protect them from piracy.

(Ben Fritz in Hollywood contributed to this report.)

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