When Viacom filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against YouTube, which is owned by Google, we all knew that the fur would fly. No one is neutral about Google these days, and YouTube has also created fierce partisans in the copyright wars.
It is quite possible that the lawsuit is simply a bargaining tool in the fight over the licensing payments that Viacom wants from Google, but, if the case goes to trial, the real issue will be how far copyright law can be used to prevent technological innovations that depend, to some degree or another, on using copyrighted material without permission. This debate is at least as old as the photocopier and the VCR, but the terms of the rough deal stuck by the Supreme Court in the 1984 Betamax case are still being contested.
Several newspaper and online columns over the weekend cast interesting light on this debate .
In the New York Times on Sunday (March 18), Larry Lessig of Stanford Law School makes the important point that Viacom is trying to use the courts to get around the compromise on innovation versus infringement that was established by Congress when it passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The DMCA created a “safe harbor” for ISPs that merely hosted infringing material on their servers without specific knowledge of the infringement, so long as they act according to prescribed procedures once they have such knowledge. Now Viacom, emboldened by the Supreme Court decision in the Grokster case, is trying to revise that compromise through the back door, using the Courts new “inducement” theory of secondary copyright liability to undermine the policy Congress enacted.
Many predicted that the Grokster decision would have a chilliing effect on technological innovation; Lessig’s column suggests that the Viacom suit is a huge block of ice to contribute to that chill.
Along the same lines, Fred von Lohmann of the Electronic Frontier Foundation writes about all of the new technologies that might not have seen the light of day if copyright holders could sue based on the potential that users of the new innovation could infringe those copyrights. Even if one excludes the hyperbolic inclusion of reading glasses on his list, von Lohmann makes a powerful point — photocopiers, VCRs, iPods and even public libraries might be subject to restrictions and per-use fees in the world Viacom envisions.
James Boyle, in a column in the Financial Times, tries to put this debate in perspective by noting that, although it is sometimes difficult to feel sympathy for the ravenous giant that Google has become — it is no longer, as Boyle says, “a helpless start-up” — the interests that Google has pursued in its copyright conflicts often line up with the public interest. His reminder that the issues are much more complex than simply yelling “stop thief” at YouTube and Google (a tactic which Google’s rival Microsoft tried in a recent speech and op-ed), and that we as consumers of intellectual property also have an important horse in this race, are welcome indeed.