Journalist at center of YouTube case

How a reporter fares in his copyright case against Google-owned video-sharing site could affect media conglomerates.

Robert Tur once piloted a helicopter in 55-mile-an-hour winds to rescue people stranded in a hotel that was being battered by towering surf. If he can tackle that, he asks, why would he be afraid of Google?

Still, the Los Angeles-based journalist who filed a copyright infringement suit against YouTube in July--before the video-sharing site was acquired by Google--admits that nobody looks forward to a legal tussle with a $145 billion company.

"When I filed this thing, I was going after a couple of guys operating over a pizza kitchen," Tur said, referring to YouTube co-founders Steve Chen and Chad Hurley, whose headquarters were once located over a pizza parlor. "I didn't believe they would have the resources to launch an offensive like the one they have now. They have the backing of one of the world's most powerful companies."

Because the chopper-piloting journalist was the first to sue YouTube for copyright infringement , he is at the center of legal wrangling among behemoth corporate powers Viacom, NBC Universal and Google. The outcome of Tur's case could affect large media conglomerates that have filed their own claims against YouTube. Sources have said that NBC Universal and Viacom are worried.

Robert Tur
Credit: Robert Tur
Journalist Robert Tur at the controls
of a helicopter.

In a friends-of-the-court brief filed Friday, Viacom and NBC Universal asked a U.S. District Court judge in Los Angeles to deny a motion filed by Google to dismiss Tur's suit.

"Any ruling on YouTube's motion will have far-reaching ramifications for the owners of video content," attorney Russell Frackman wrote in a court document on behalf of Viacom and NBC Universal.

YouTube has for a long time argued that it is protected from liability under the safe harbor provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Under the provision, service providers that host other people's content are "safe" from liability if they quickly remove material a content owner alleges infringes on their copyright.

"These suits simply misunderstand the (DMCA), which balances the rights of copyright holders against the need to protect Internet communications," Kent Walker, Google's general counsel, said in an e-mail Sunday. "As a result, they threaten the way people legitimately exchange information."

Media conglomerate Viacom filed a $1 billion complaint against YouTube in March and England's premiere soccer league accused the company in a lawsuit filed Friday of massive copyright violations . The companies want YouTube to take responsibility for the hundreds of pirated video clips that users post to the site every day.

"It's not about pride or being stubborn. My heart is in the right place. For copyright holders, this is our livelihood."
--Robert Tur, journalist suing YouTube

In his lawsuit, Tur has accused YouTube of infringing on his copyrighted material by posting without his permission video he shot during the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

NBC Universal and Viacom rushed to Tur's aid because they fear that Google will win important legal points that could hobble copyright holders against YouTube, said sources close to both companies.

In their legal brief, Viacom and NBC Universal both supported Tur's legal assertions while also asking the judge to consider that Tur's situation was very different from their own.

"(Viacom and NBC Universal) request that the court consider that its works are more popular, more commercial, and far more numerous than Tur's," wrote Frackman, of the law firm Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp. "They comprise a significant portion of the infringing works contained on YouTube, viewed billions of times, and are among the most-viewed and highest-rated videos on YouTube."

In an interview Sunday night, Tur ticked off all of Google's advantages. He points out Google is represented by attorneys from Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, arguably Silicon Valley's most prestigious firm.

"All I have is myself and my attorney (Francis Pizzulli)," Tur said.

But Tur isn't known for being weak-kneed. On the contrary, for 25 years he was known as one of Los Angeles' most swashbuckling helicopter pilots.

He recorded O.J. Simpson's Bronco chase as well as the 1992 Los Angeles riots. His name appeared in gossip columns when he was the boyfriend of actress-writer Carrie Fisher.

He also has made a name for himself for being quick to litigate any time he believed his copyright was being threatened. He has sued Reuters, CBS (multiple times) and others that he claimed violated his rights.

"I'm not a person who cuts and runs," he said. Yet, he said that if Viacom were to come to him and make the case that by keeping his lawsuit alive he is harming other content holders, "I would stand down."

"It's not about pride or being stubborn," Tur said. "My heart is in the right place. For copyright holders, this is our livelihood. We lose money when we can't protect our property. But if they convince me that it's better that I step aside, that's what I will do."

 

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