What is Viacom thinking?

So last week saw media giant Viacom launch a lawsuit against YouTube and Google. If anyone didn’t know that then you must be living on Mars, because it’s been everywhere. Viacom wants $1 billion (cue Dr. Evil impression) in damages, saying that YouTube – and it’s owners Google – should be responsible for its content; Viacom claims it found 150,000 copyrighted clips which had been viewed 1.5 billion times and says that YouTube should do more to police what’s being uploaded to their site.

I suppose they have a point, but I must say, I don’t understand what Viacom is doing here. Are they trying to put YouTube out of business, like the music industry tried with Napster? Because that’s not going to happen. Google might try to settle on YouTube’s behalf, perhaps, but those damages wouldn’t hurt Google much; and it’s quite likely that Google will fight it.

In the end I think understanding what’s going on here comes down to what you think YouTube actually is. Is YouTube a webhost, in that it stores content that users upload to their site; or is YouTube really an ISP, offering a service and making money off that service? For mine I think YouTube is a webhost. Yes, they make money off their service, but so do many companies online; if Box.net stores a plagiarised copy of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, does that make them an ISP? The simple fact is that there are so many clips being uploaded to YouTube – thousands and thousands a day – that there’s no way YouTube can go through them all; all they can do is to provide a way for companies like Viacom to alert them to copyrighted material so they can take it down, which they do.

What I find strange here, though, is Viacom’s reluctance to accept YouTube as a new form of media, a form they can use to their advantage. A lot of what is up on YouTube equates to short adverts for shows; clips and pieces people found funny. What happens is that when people watch those clips, they’re more likely to go and watch the show on TV; shows like Saturday Night Live in the US have had a definite increase in viewer numbers since their clips started to appear on YouTube. What Viacom could do, as some other companies have done, is to continue to notify YouTube of copyrighted material, but to let YouTube stay much the same as it is. I mean, isn’t it in Viacom’s interest for YouTube to have continued success?

And that’s why I don’t understand the lawsuit. If YouTube is actually making Viacom money, why attack them and try to disrupt their services? It only hurts Viacom in the long run. The only thing that makes sense to me is that Viacom doesn’t want to shut down YouTube; rather, they’re trying to force YouTube into a deal that would be profitable for them, perhaps a share of YouTube’s revenue.

And if that is the case then I doubt Google will settle, because they have too much to lose. Over the next few years mobiles with video capture are going to explode as the prices drop. And where will everyone go to post their videos? YouTube. If you think the amount of uploads to YouTube is huge now, just wait until the new mobiles are widespread. YouTube will make a killing and they won’t want to enter into a deal with Viacom – or any company – which might endanger that. So I think this might well go to the courts.

The ironic thing is that there are worse things on YouTube than the copyrighted material, things which should be brought to the public attention just as much; these school fights which are being posted to YouTube are brutal and they’ve already spread from the US to Australia. But the lawsuit’s knocked them right out of the media’s consciousness. So we’ll just have to see what happens. I’m a YouTube fan for the way it’s brought control of content back to the consumer, but I know the dangers of disrespecting copyright, so maybe it would be best if Google and Viacom could reach a compromise. But I won’t hold my breath.

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