Lawyers eye Internet issues

Digital Rights Management talk sparks debate

Did YouTube help revive “Saturday Night Live?” Or did “Saturday Night Live” help launch YouTube?

That debate between the general counsels of NBC Universal and Google over the famous “Lazy Sunday” skit, which was hugely popular on YouTube in late 2005, was as hostile as things got at a panel Tuesday featuring the top attorneys from those two companies along with Disney, Viacom and Microsoft at the Digital Rights Management Conference sponsored by LexisNexis, Variety and ContentAgenda.

Michael Fricklas of Viacom, which is suing Google for alleged copyright infringement on YouTube, said the key question isn’t whether content producers or online distributors benefit each other more, but who should control the relationship.

“Where we differ with Google isn’t over the promotional value of YouTube, but that when all of your content is up, it’s no longer promotional,” he said. “It should be up to us and other content companies to decide how much to promote and how.”

Despite the legal conflict with Viacom, Google’s Kent Walker largely agreed with other panelists about the need for DRM to protect their content from piracy and set usage rules as they increasingly distribute it online.

Despite some skeptical questions from the audience, panelists held firm to that position.

“The idea that people should be able to use content in an unprotected manner, it seems to me, is not a debatable proposition,” said Disney’s Alan Braverman. “The debate shouldn’t be ‘whether DRM’ but ‘how DRM?’ ”

In order for DRM to be workable as consumers acquire increasing numbers of digital devices, panelists agreed it’s of paramount importance that the systems be interoperable, though none had any concrete ideas on how to make that happen beyond high-level meetings.

But panelists noted that the issue is at the top of their companies’ agendas, which they said was a major shift that has taken place in just the past year.

“For the first time, this is front and center,” Fricklas said. “Now it’s at the CEO level.”