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April 2, 2011

Viacom et al. v. Youtube And Its Importance

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

David Post (of The Volokh Conspiracy) is rapidly becoming one of my favorite sources for Copyfight stories that don't get adequate mainstream media coverage. On Friday of last week he put up a pointer to his "brief" in the Viacom/YouTube case that is to be argued before the 2nd Circuit.

Post makes the point that the decision to be rendered is potentially ground-breaking for not just YouTube but for the whole "safe harbor" exemptions provided by section 512(c) of the Copyright Act. These exemptions have allowed not just YouTube, but every blog, social site, site that allows user comments, and pretty much the entirety of what is sometimes called "Web 2.0" to flourish in conjunction with, rather than as slave to, copyright restrictions.

Safe harbor basically means that you, or I, or anyone else putting out material on the net or providing hosting for material on the net, can do so freely in good faith and when given information indicating that material we posted or hosted is violating copyrights we can then, post facto, remove that material. Viacom, representing the Cartel in this case, would like that turned around. They'd like to require that sites block material based merely on suspicious labeling, or other external markers. If I upload a photograph of, say, my dog and call it "Lindsey Lohan revealed!" the Cartel thinks that label is sufficient to require the photo hosting site to block my picture until they can inspect it to determine that it's not something Ms Lohan or a professional photographer would have a copyright interest in.

Post has put together a concise "brief" written with Annemarie Bridy and aimed at law professors to help them understand (and presumably educate their students) on just how wrong the Cartel position is. Post points out that pretty much all the successful Web 2.0 sites are American-based and operate pretty much only because they can use the safe harbor provisions to move huge volumes of content quickly. Take away this unhindered flow and... well, you'd have something that much more resembled Egypt, or even the U.K. where, despite a long tradition of radical speaking they have far fewer protections for online speech than we do here.

From a legal-path perspective there are two ways this can go. If the 2nd rules to keep the interpretation of the safe harbor provisions as they are then it would be in agreement with the 9th Circuit and it's extremely unlikely that SCOTUS would grant cert. If the two Circuits disagree, however, that's a standard way to get a case before the Court.

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