Veoh decision setback for Viacom, but Google not off hook

In the Veoh video copyright case and in Viacom's lawsuit against YouTube, there's a key difference: whether the plaintiff sent take-down notices.

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
4 min read

The unprecedented decision by a U.S. district court judge to dismiss a copyright infringement case against video-sharing site Veoh is definitely favorable to Google, YouTube, and all user-generated sites, copyright attorneys say.

But the ruling doesn't mean that Google will necessarily prevail in the $1 billion copyright suit filed against it by Viacom, parent company of MTV and Paramount Pictures.

There are significant differences between Veoh and YouTube, according to Mark Litvack, a well-known copyright attorney who once worked for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and is now with the firm Reed Smith.

Veoh was sued by the Io Group, which does business as Titan Media, an adult entertainment company. According to court documents, Io said between June 1, 2006, and June 22, 2006, the company found 10 videos it owned--some as long as 40 minutes--posted to Veoh without its authorization. The Io Group filed suit on June 23, 2006, charging that Veoh had not done enough to protect its copyright.

The judge in the case, Howard Lloyd of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California found that Veoh and other sites that host user-generated videos can't be held solely responsible for vetting the clips. But what's different about Io and Viacom is that Io didn't notify Veoh of the copyright infringement on the site before filing suit.

In contrast, Viacom sent more than 100,000 "take-down notices" to YouTube prior to filing its $1 billion copyright complaint.

"The first reaction from Io was to sue rather than to work through the system," Litvack said. "They didn't find out whether Veoh worked to protect copyright, which it appears they do relative to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act."

What Litvack is referring to is the DMCA's Safe Harbor provision, which limits the responsibility of an Internet service provider for any criminal acts committed by users provided they follow a set of procedures. For example, ISPs must remove unauthorized content once they are made aware of it by the copyright owner, and must boot users who repeatedly violate copyright. They must also avoid profiting from any pirated content.

Litvack said that it appears Veoh followed these requirements and would have done so in Io's case had it been informed of the infringing content. Another important difference between Io and Viacom is that Io didn't prove Veoh's business model was dependent on piracy. In its ongoing lawsuit with YouTube, Viacom argues that YouTube is built on illegal content.

"What the Supreme Court said in the Grokster and Napster cases is that you have to look at the business model," Litvack said. "The files on Napster were something like 95 or 98 percent unauthorized copyright material that was illegally posted to the site. The copyright owners in that case demonstrated that Napster and Grokster were both well aware of the piracy on their site. There was no evidence that this was the case at Veoh."

Viacom issues statement following decision
The distinction was not lost on Viacom. Following the court's decision in the Veoh case, the media conglomerate issued this statement: "YouTube is a business built on infringement that has failed to take reasonable measures to respect the rights of creators and content owners. Google and YouTube have engaged in massive copyright infringement."

Litvack said that Viacom's attorneys can still prevail provided that they prove YouTube is a business built on pirated material and that parent company Google has knowledge of the unauthorized clips on the site.

But even with these differences, Litvack said Lloyd's decision did not benefit Viacom: "I'd be hard pressed to say that the decision is a good precedent for Viacom."

Fred von Lohmann, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group for Internet users, was much more optimistic about YouTube's chances after learning of the Veoh ruling.

One of the lawyers who worked on the Grokster case, von Lohmann said that: "I think it was a complete victory for Veoh and for the 11 or so other user-generated sites that have copyright cases pending. The decision was pretty much a vindication for sites that comply with the DMCA."

He conceded that Io's decision to sue first without sending any notice to Veoh may prove to be an important distinction between that case and YouTube's. He added that it shouldn't make much difference as long as YouTube "has been responding to all of Viacom's notices," which he said the company appears to have done.

But von Lohmann argues that the many similarities between Veoh's case and YouTube's may prove more significant.

He said that the court noted Veoh's efforts to protect copyright and said YouTube has long adopted many of the same practices, such as booting repeat copyright offenders and blocking videos that have been flagged as unauthorized so exact copies can't be reposted.

While von Lohmann acknowledged that Lloyd's decision in the Veoh case isn't binding and doesn't force other judges to consider his ruling, he thinks it will be a "very influential decision because it's the first to rule specifically on user-generated sites."

"Generally speaking, judges pay attention to what their colleagues have said in previous cases," von Lohmann said. "I think this strengthens all user-generated sites that comply with the DMCA Safe Harbor provision."