Back in April I noted that this was a case that was not getting a lot of mainstream media attention
, despite its potential significance. The core of the case tests whether "safe harbor" provisions of the DMCA work as we think they do, how far they extend, and so on.
Yesterday, the Second Circuit handed down its decision, which is something of a mixed bag. The trial court had pretty completely sided with YouTube, in a way that felt like a complete victory for safe harbor. The Circuit decision is more mixed: in part they upheld, in part they overturned, and at least one key question has been remanded back down for further argument.
The response to this mixed decision has itself been mixed. Some bloggers seem to think it's hugely significant (e.g. calling it a "DMCA Game Change"). However, I come down on the side of EFF Deeplinks blogger Corynne McSherry and Volokh Conspiracy blogger David Post that the decision is not all that bad, and in fact mostly upholds the key elements of the safe harbor concept.
As I see it there are three key elements here: Does safe harbor apply? Who is responsible for finding infringing content? What must be done when infringement is claimed? YouTube clearly won on points one and two and the third will need to be further argued.
As Post points out, the Circuit's finding is that a safe harbor site such as YouTube is protected from all infringment claims, including contributory infringement, inducement, and so-called "vicarious" infringement. In addition, the Circuit clearly assigns the responsibility on the claimant, not the hosting entity, to determine specific infringement by content. The Cartel's theories about pre-filtering and keyword matching fall. Takedown notices may still be subject to abuse or over-use, but the responsibility for generating notices is still there, an important victory for YouTube.
The issues on which YouTube lost, and which are now remanded down for further argument, deal with what steps it (and similar safe harbor-protected) entities must take when made aware of infringement allegations. The Circuit clearly ruled out what's being called a "willful blindness" defense - that is, YouTube can't shield itself from knowing about infringing content. And, it must "act expeditiously" to remove or prevent access to content that is claimed to infringe. There's also an unresolved question of what the Circuit called "substantial influence" and some question about syndication of allegedly infringing content. These issues will now be re-argued at the lower court.
DeVoy calls this a "gut punch" but then goes on to delve into the details that make it less significant, though I agree some of them are thorny questions yet to be resolved. Likewise, Eriq Gardner at the Hollywood Reporter claims the Circuit "Side[d] with Viacom" but I think he is mistaken, too.
Matters of fact-finding, such as the Circuit required to be resolved, will vary from case to case. What is important here, I think is that the Circuit has affirmed the overall structure of safe harbor policy, clearly rejected attempts to drag in other sorts of copyright-infringing activities, and begun to articulate what may become a recognized standard for what actions a safe harbor-protected entity has to take. That's not a complete vindication of either side, but the scales I see are definitely tipped in YouTube's favor.