Entertainment companies have asked the courts repeatedly for help in coping with online piracy, but the results have been decidedly mixed. Although judges have come down hard on numerous file-sharing networks and search engines that specialize in bootlegs, they've ruled in favor of several websites whose content is generated by users, even if it wasn't authorized by the copyright holders. The latest may be the most significant: Last week, a district judge in New York dismissed claims by Viacom and others that Google's YouTube had built its business by turning a blind eye to widespread copyright infringements. The ruling, which Viacom plans to appeal, reaffirmed the crucial principle that online companies should be held responsible for what they do, not what others do with their services.
As Judge Louis L. Stanton explained, Congress recognized that the Internet couldn't function if broadband providers, search engines and hosting services were held liable for every unauthorized copy made on their networks. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 protected those companies from liability as long as they acted quickly to remove any infringing material identified by copyright holders.
Viacom argued that YouTube didn't qualify for this protection because infringements were common and central to the company's fortunes. Echoing earlier rulings, however, Stanton held that the law doesn't require YouTube to police its network for bootlegged videos. Instead, it only has to remove the items singled out by copyright holders. That's sensible — copyright owners are far better positioned to know whether a clip was used legally or not. In fact, many of the clips cited in the original lawsuit weren't infringing. At least 100 had been posted by marketers employed by Viacom.