Some of the biggest and most respected Web services have come to the aid of Google and YouTube, which are defending themselves against accusations that they violated copyright on a grand scale.
Yahoo, Facebook and eBay on Wednesday filed a friends-of-the-court brief in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. That's where Viacom, parent company of MTV Networks and Paramount Pictures, filed a $1 billion copyright lawsuit against Google in March 2007.
The three companies have urged District Judge Louis Stanton to dismiss Viacom's suit, arguing that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act protects Internet service providers from liability for copyright violations committed by users. They say that a decision against Google could stifle the growth of important Internet services.
"Plaintiffs' legal arguments, if accepted, would retard the development of the Internet and electronic commerce," wrote a lawyer representing the four companies.
Viacom alleges that YouTube, which Google acquired in 2006,unauthorized clips from Paramount Pictures, Comedy Central, and MTV Networks to the video-sharing site. Those clips helped YouTube attract users as well as generate ad sales, Viacom claims.
The amicus brief filed on Wednesdaymade by NBC Universal, Warner Bros., Disney, the Screen Actors Guild, and Directors Guild of America on behalf of Viacom.
That so many powerhouse companies are weighing in is testament to the importance of the case. The court's decision will likely help establish copyright law as it applies to the Web.
In response to Wednesday's filing, Kelly McAndrew, a Viacom spokeswoman, told Bloomberg: "The courts have been clear that creating and building a Web-based business on the intellectual property of others is illegal. That is exactly what YouTube did in its formative years."
But when it comes to services such as YouTube, the law hasn't been as clear as McAndrew asserts--not to the courts or even Viacom executives.
In September, a U.S. district judge, an online-video service, after that site was sued by Universal Music Group for alleged copyright violations. Legal analysts have said that the Veoh case is very similar to YouTube's but Viacom has argued that there are important differences and that decision, which Universal said it will appeal, is not binding on Stanton's decision.
And Viacom also has had trouble determining whether the DMCA protects YouTube.
On Friday, more documents in Viacom vs. Google were released and among them was an e-mail from Michael Fricklas, Viacom's general counsel, in which Fricklas appeared to defend YouTube.
"Mostly, YouTube behaves--and why not," Fricklas wrote in July 2006. "User-generated content appears to be what's driving it right now. Also, the difference between YouTube's behavior and Grokster's is staggering. While the Supreme Court's language IS broad; the precedent is not THAT broad."
A Viacom spokeswoman said Fricklas' e-mail was sent before Fricklas had a chance to fully evaluate YouTube and "in a few short months, it became clear to Mr. Fricklas and others that YouTube's behavior was egregiously unlawful."