By Ryan

youtube-logoViacom’s $1 billion copyright-infringement lawsuit against YouTube seemed from the beginning more of a statement than an actual attempt to recover damages.  Hey, do not steal our stuff; we have top-notch lawyers and the ability to sue you for far more than you’re even worth.  But now, it seems that Viacom may actually have a solid case, based on recent evidence that suggests that YouTube employees were among those who illegally uploaded Viacom clips, and their managers knew about it.  Now, I don’t expect Viacom to be awarded $1 billion (Google only paid $1.65 billion for the entire company), but, as some experts are pointing out, this could have huge ramifications for YouTube, leading to at least a restructuring of how uploading clips works and perhaps even to a temporary shutdown.  While that’s probably a bit excessive, the primary question remains: does the profit Google makes from copyrighted clips exceed the promotional value of those clips being on the most popular video site in the world?

To be sure, I think user-uploading of full episodes of television shows anywhere on the internet is just as bad as uploading music, yet it is behavior that many users—myself included—benefit from.  We assume that because the show has already aired, everyone has been paid, and no one is hurt by watching it on YouTube instead of OnDemand, Hulu, or a network website.  The truth is that much of the 2007-2008 WGA strike that shut down television production was based on artists wanting returns for the burgeoning field of online video.

Still, if I just want to see a two-minute clip of David Letterman joking about his extortion situation, should I really have to sit through a 45-second ad?  Wouldn’t having that Letterman clip on YouTube actually promote interest in the show?  I recognize why full episodes shouldn’t be on YouTube, and I agree with such a sentiment, but I think clips usually serve to highlight one small thing that was funny or interesting about a show, which should serve to drive people towards the show.  And let’s face it: if I have to go to the CBS website, a site I never visit, to watch a Letterman clip, I probably just won’t watch it.  However, if that clip was on YouTube, I probably would, and it may even prompt me to tune in to The Late Show.

Of course, the difference between clips and full/part episodes can be tricky, and the distinction seems all but lost on most network executives.  Still, perhaps this Viacom-YouTube mess will lead somebody to figure out what’s an effective use of content that helps everybody, and what’s a clear violation of copyright.  And heaven help you, Viacom, if you lead to YouTube getting shutdown.