New speak v. old speak

It seems to be a monthly occurrence; an editorial appears in a major news outlet advocating stricter copyright legislation and enforcement. This week it was the San Francisco Chronicle, which published on Monday an opinion piece from two attorneys who have just launched a class action lawsuit against Google over videos posted in YouTube. The acquisition of YouTube by deep-pocketed Google has clearly made it a tempting target, and class actions are notoriously lucrative, especially for the attorneys, if they can get past the formidable obstacle of class certification. Authors Louis Solomon and William Hart claim to represent the interests of “large and small copyright holders whose creative works have been posted and reposted [to YouTube] without authorization.”

Solomon and Hart make a number of conclusory statements in their editorial that deserve closer scrutiny. For one thing, they repeatedly assert that YouTube’s “very business model depend[s] on the unauthorized exploitation of copyrighted material.” They say there is “no legitimate constituency” for that business model and ask, rhetorically, what Google thought was the main source of value when they bought YouTube if not “the copyrighted works of others.” All of this ignores the large number of user-created works that are posted to YouTube with explicit permission granted by the creator/user who uploads the video. Of course YouTube depends on copyrighted works created by others, but many of those creators want to have their work available in this forum; these creators are not being exploited, they are being offered an outlet for their creativity that would not otherwise be available.

By ignoring the legitimate users of YouTube, Solomon and Hart reveal that the fundamental purpose of this lawsuit, like that filed earlier this year by Viacom against YouTube, is to undermine some settled legal principles. This kind of attack on new techonologies dates back into the 1970s, when some movies studios sued to prevent the distribution of consumer video recorders. The Supreme Court ruled that a technology could not be suppressed if it had a “substantial non-infringing use.” YouTube obviously has such uses, but the various plaintiffs are clearly hoping that our now more business-friendly federal courts will reverse or revise that standard to give content producers stricter control over technological innovation.

Another target of the lawsuit is the “safe-harbor” provision inserted into the Copyright Act in 2000 by the DMCA to protect online service providers from liability for the actions of their consumers. The content industry is hoping that the 2005 Supreme Court decision in MGM v. Grokster offers an opportunity to reverse in the courts what Congress did by legislation and force online hosts, who are easier and wealthier targets than individuals are, to assume the risks and costs for user behavior.

Finally, Solomon and Hart assert in response to an anticipated defense that “no one has a First Amendment right to infringe” copyright. This is true as far as it goes, but it overlooks the fact that some apparent infringements are immunized by law precisely because of the danger that copyright could be used to suppress legitimate and socially desirable speech. Sections 107-122 of the Copyright Act all enact “limitations on exclusive rights” designed to allow conduct that would otherwise be infringing but which Congress believed should be protected. The Supreme Court has said that “the Framers intended copyright itself to be the engine of free expression” (Harper and Row v. Nation Magazine, 471 U.S. 599 (1985), and YouTube can legitimately argue that the opportunity it offers for such expression gives it a social value that tips the copyright balance in its favor.