What’s fuelling the Viacom-YouTube fracas?


Market observers who predicted Viacom and Google would eventually (if not amicably) settle their long standing dispute have proved to be wrong – so far at least.

The increasingly acrimonious altercation between the two titans reached a head yesterday with Viacom Inc. suing YouTube and its corporate parent Google Inc. in a U.S. federal court for alleged copyright violations – and seeking more than US$1billion in damages.

The dispute centres around Viacom’s allegations that YouTube – the popular video sharing service purchased by Google for US$1.65 billion last October – is engaging in flagrant copyright violations by allowing hundreds of thousands of unauthorized video clips to be uploaded and displayed on its site.

Viacom is the owner of MTV, Comedy Central, BET and several other well-known brands. Last month, the media conglomerate ordered YouTube to take down 100,000 unauthorized clips of material it owns, which Viacom alleged had collectively been viewed more than 1.5 billion times.

In response, Google and YouTube lawyers assert they are protected by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998 and will defend the company vigorously.

The DMCA limits liability for firms that act quickly to block access to pirated materials once they are notified by copyright holders of specific infringement. In the statement issued yesterday, Viacom accused Google/YouTube of three things:

Manipulation of user behaviour/preferences – “YouTube,” Viacom’s statement claimed, “has built a lucrative business out of exploiting the devotion of fans to others’ creative works in order to enrich itself and its parent Google.”

Tacitly abetting the sharing of bootlegged media – The statement also lashed out at the YouTube/Google business model that it claimed is “based on building traffic and selling advertising off unlicensed content.”

Not acting decisively to curb piracy – Finally, Viacom suggested YouTube is not taking proactive steps to curtail piracy on its site as part of a deliberate strategy “to generate significant revenues and traffic for itself.” To that end, it said, YouTube is conveniently shifting the burden – and high cost – of curtailing piracy on to the victims.

Whatever the merits of those observations, industry observers have noted that proactively tackling piracy is not a big priority with YouTube – or for that matter with several other lesser-known video sharing sites.

In the case of YouTube, for a long time now, the site has been making noises about curtailing piracy but doesn’t seem to have done very much to follow through.

Though the site’s co-founders publicly declared they would start using filtering technology by the end of last year, that’s not happened so far.

Instead, when faced with barrage of criticism from media companies such as NBC and Viacom, YouTube asserted that detecting which copyrighted clips had been uploaded without permission was a complex process.

It issued a statement claiming that “on YouTube, identifying copyrighted material cannot be a single automated process.”

But where there’s a will there’s a way. And it did seem – to many industry observers – that the will to curb piracy on YouTube was lacking.

While completely eliminating all bootlegged material from any gargantuan video sharing site may not be a realistic goal, there are systems and tools out there (developed by vendors such as Audible Magic and Gracenote) that help such sites counter piracy more effectively.

These tools use a technique called “digital fingerprinting” to identify copyrighted music/videos uploaded to a sharing site.

Here’s how it works: the Audible Magic system (for instance) would check uploaded files against massive databases that store digital representations of copyrighted songs, TV shows and movies. If a match is detected, that file could be blocked or posted – depending on whether it is licensed for sale on that site. Recent demos of the technology were apparently quite impressive and were reported in the mainstream press as well.

Last month, Vance Ikezoye, CEO of Los Gatos, Calif.-based Audible Magic demoed the detection capabilities of the technology. He downloaded a two-minute clip from YouTube and fed it into the company’s video identification system. The washed out clip was dubbed in Chinese, and seemed to have been recorded with a camcorder in movie theater before being uploaded to YouTube.

Yet, despite the pathetic image quality, the filtering software quickly kicked in and identified the clip as the sword-training scene that begins 49 minutes and 37 seconds into the Miramax film ‘Kill Bill: Vol. 2.’ Interestingly, prior to its acquisition by Google, YouTube had been in talks to use the Audible Magic system. There were reports that an outline agreement with Audible Magic was in place, when Google announced its purchase of YouTube last October. After the acquisition, Google reportedly chose not to activate the agreement with Audible Magic technology, but assured the big music labels that it would have its own (anti-piracy) technology in place by January.

That didn’t happen.

The latest industry buzz is that after coming under intense pressure from irate media companies, Google agreed to use Audible Magic’s system on YouTube. No formal announcement has been made so far, though. However, another big social networking site – MySpace – recently forged a deal with Audible Magic under which the latter will supply technology to identify pirated music and video content on MySpace.

Admittedly, all technology has its limitations. For instance, capturing all of the new material broadcast on TV each day on to a database (that the filtering software can then use) would be incredibly challenging.

And of course from the perspective of users of video sharing site, content filtering can be a deterrent. It may cause them to leave filtered sites and visit other online destinations where there aren’t any such checks put in place.

There are other video sharing sites where copyright violations are pretty blatant, and where YouTube’s 10-minute limit of video uploads don’t apply (and feature full-length movies and pirated TV episodes in their entirety).

Be that as it may, it’s just possible the Viacom suit against Google would cause – not just YouTube – but other video sharing portals to take piracy on their sites more seriously – if for no other reason than to avoid having a court case on their hands.


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