YouTube Prevails Again in $1 Billion Copyright Suit with Viacom

In a case watched closely by media companies, Google Inc.’s video website YouTube was once again victorious in the copyright infringement suit brought against it by Viacom Inc. On April 18, 2013, U.S. District Court Judge Louis Stanton (Southern District of New York) dismissed Viacom’s lawsuit in holding that its copyright was not violated by the posting on YouTube of unauthorized video clips of Viacom shows.

Viacom International, Inc. v. YouTube, Inc., No. 07 Civ. 2103, is an action commenced in 2007 by Viacom and others against YouTube, seeking $1 Billion in damages for the alleged hosting of infringing materials. YouTube users were allowed to post unauthorized video clips from popular Viacom shows including “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” In 2010, Judge Stanton determined on summary judgment that YouTube fell within the safe harbor of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The safe harbor provisions of the DMCA (Section 512) exempt qualifying on-line service providers from claims of copyright infringement against them resulting from the conduct of their customers. Viacom appealed the decision to the Second Circuit. In 2012, the Second Circuit said the safe harbor provisions apply only if YouTube lacked specific knowledge of infringements or acted quickly to remove material once notified it was infringing. The Second Circuit vacated the decision and remanded back to the District Court in order to determine whether YouTube had more than just a generalized knowledge of infringement. On remand, Judge Stanton again held for YouTube.

Viacom had no evidence that YouTube had knowledge of specific infringements, but argued that because the DMCA safe harbor is an affirmative defense, the burden was on YouTube to prove each element, including that it didn’t have knowledge of specific infringements. Judge Stanton rejected this argument and held that because of the volume of works placed through internet service providers, the burden necessarily falls on copyright owners to identify and notify service providers like YouTube of specific infringements. In fact, in 2007 alone, Viacom sent in excess of 100,000 notices of specific infringements to YouTube which were removed from the website within one business day. According to Judge Stanton, despite YouTube’s generalized knowledge of infringements, it does not lose its protection under the DMCA safe harbor as long as it does not influence or participate in the infringement. Viacom has said that it intends to appeal the decision.