YouTube Set Free

Web hosts not liable


In 2007 the entertainment giant Viacom sued Google, the owner of the video site YouTube, for copyright infringement. Viacom, whose holdings include MTV, Comedy Central, and Nickelodeon, sought $1 billion in damages from YouTube on the grounds that it was hosting illegally uploaded clips.

Viacom's case ran into trouble in late 2009, when it was discovered that some of the infringements it had initially alleged were actually anonymous attempts by the company's marketing arm to make certain clips "go viral." Still, neither side disputed the fact that much of the material hosted by YouTube violated Viacom's copyright. But was Google liable for the actions of the millions of users who uploaded illegal material?

The company argued that it wasn't, pointing to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act's "safe harbor" provision, which shields Web-based content hosts from liability unless they have "actual knowledge" of the "facts or circumstances" of infringement. When specific violations were brought to YouTube's attention, Google noted, the site acted swiftly to remove the offending items.

In June a federal judge sided with Google. U.S. District Court Judge Louis Stanton ruled that Google's lack of specific knowledge about infringing activities protected it from liability. "Mere knowledge of prevalence of such activity in general is not enough," the ruling said.