It would be tempting to dismiss Viacom’s seven-year litigation against Google and YouTube — alleging a massive conspiracy to illicitly make money from the media company’s content — as all for naught.
The conglom originally demanded more than $1 billion back in 2007, clearly designed as an attention-grabbing figure. But in the end, YouTube ended up paying Viacom nothing as part of the settlement of the dispute, according to sources familiar with the agreement.
Meanwhile, the federal judge in the case sided with YouTube’s defense: that it wasn’t liable for copyright infringement because it had implemented takedown measures as specified under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Under the DMCA’s “safe harbor” provision, Internet sites are immune from infringement claims if they quickly remove infringing content after they’re notified by a copyright owner.
And, according to Google, the whole case wasn’t really about copyright at all. The Internet giant argued in court filings that the fight was really a business dispute that erupted after Viacom’s failed $800 million offer in 2006 to acquire the video-sharing site. Viacom had even proposed teaming up with Google to buy YouTube, before Google bought YouTube for $1.65 billion, according to Google filings.
So all that happened out of this spat was that lawyers on both sides walked away with hundreds of billable hours, right?
But here’s what Viacom’s lawsuit actually did: It spurred YouTube to accelerate the development of tools to detect — and pull down — copyrighted material, in an automated way. Given that YouTube users upload 100 hours of video every minute, Viacom (and others) complained that it was not feasible to monitor that volume manually and send out DMCA takedown requests one at a time.
YouTube claimed that even before Viacom sued, it was putting together the pieces of what became the Content ID system for automatically flagging copyrighted video. But it was only during the Viacom court proceedings that YouTube announced it would filter content for all copyright holders, not just its business partners.
No doubt, YouTube would have evolved its practices to a more content-owner-friendly system — eventually. But the lawsuit prompted it to move more quickly than it would have otherwise, and also served notice to other user-generated content sites that Viacom was prepared to take aggressive legal action.
Media companies still have issues with Google and specifically continue to harp on the company’s search-engine results, which industry players argue should better strip out links to pirate sites. But with YouTube, Viacom has now achieved a working relationship — one that transpired faster because of the threat to collect $1 billion in damages.