NBC, Viacom Add Heft to YouTube Copyright Suit

Google’s YouTube-related legal struggles have mounted in recent days, with NBC Universal and Viacom lending support to a California journalist’s copyright infringement suit against the video-sharing site, and a third lawsuit filed by England’s top soccer league.

Both NBC Universal and Viacom — which already has a US$1 billion copyright suit of its own pending against Google — filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of a case brought last year by Bob Tur, who sued YouTube for allowing users to share video he shot of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

Tur operates the Los Angeles News Service and owns the rights to a widely seen video clip showing truck driver Reginald Denny being dragged from his vehicle and beaten during the race-fueled riots that rocked the city’s South Central neighborhood.

He filed suit last year in the U.S. District Court of the Central District, claiming copyright infringement. NBC Universal and Viacom filed briefs on Tur’s behalf on Friday.

Separately, one of England’s largest professional soccer leagues, the Football Association Premier League, sued YouTube, claiming in a suit filed in New York that Google’s video-sharing site was enabling copyright infringement of soccer match images by users.

Teaming Up

NBC Universal has not directly taken action against YouTube. However, in its filing, NBCU — which is 80 percent owned by General Electric and 20 percent by France-based Vivendi — said that “many” of its “most valuable copyrighted works have been copied, performed and disseminated without authorization by YouTube and other similarly operated Web sites.

“NBCU has a strong interest in preserving the strength and viability of all of its legal rights and remedies in response to such conduct,” the brief adds.

The brief takes aim at Google’s main argument to date, that it is acting as an Internet service provider, a position that could give it protection under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) against copyright claims.

“YouTube actively manipulates and modifies the content in ways that the uploading user clearly does not, including copying, reformatting and adapting the works,” the companies argue.” In operating its own commercial Web site, YouTube engages in activities that are reserved to the copyright holder.”

The new suit, meanwhile, was brought by two U.S. law firms on behalf of the soccer league and Bourne, a music publishing house. The suit seeks an injunction against YouTube and unspecified damages.

Digital Defense

All three suits against YouTube similarly argue the site encourages massive copyright infringement on its Web site in order to generate revenue through ad sales for Google.

The search giant anticipated that legal woes would come as part of the YouTube package when it paid $1.65 billion for the site last year. It set aside a portion of that price tag to fight legal battles even as it has tried to strike partnerships and licensing deals.

Google’s response to all the suits has been similar — that it removes infringing videos when it receives requests from copyright holders to do so, as required by the DMCA, but that by its nature, YouTube cannot be consider a cause of infringement.

“Most content owners understand that we respect copyrights, we work every day to help them manage their content, and we are developing state-of-the-art tools to let them do that even better,” said Kent Walker, Google’s general counsel.

In the end, all of the suits against YouTube will boil down to the same DMCA-related arguments, with plaintiffs arguing that Google has done more than simply offer users a platform for sharing video.

“Google obviously felt confident that the safe harbor provisions of DMCA provided it legal backing before it bought YouTube,” Michael Graham, an intellectual property attorney and partner with Marshall Gerstein & Borun, told the E-Commerce Times. The risks are significant, however, since a single case going against Google could create precedent that would likely prompt a deluge of similar actions.

For now, however, most suits may have more value in “gaining leverage for negotiations,” Graham added.

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