For those of you interested in this sort of thing or this issue, I’ve written (along with Annemarie Bridy at U Idaho) a “Law Professors’ Amicus Brief” in the appeal (before the 2d Circuit in NYC) in the Viacom et al. v. Youtube case. You can download it here: http://tinyurl.com/Youtube-Amicus-Brief.
I’ve blogged about this case before. Depending on what the court does, it could well be the most important case concerning copyright on the Net that gets decided this year. The issue couldn’t be much more important. YouTube successfully defended itself against infringement claims brought by a host of content providers by asserting the “safe harbor” provisions of sec. 512(c) of the Copyright Act, and the case concerns the interpretation of that provision. The section 512 safe harbors have been of prodigious importance — by giving providers of online applications and services a defense to infringement claims arising out of their users’ activities (e.g., user postings of infringing files on YouTube), it has enabled the (astonishing) growth of “user-generated content” or “Web 2.0″ sites over the past decade — YouTube, Facebook, Craigslist, Tumblr, Twitter, Myspace, Blogger, and on and on and on. At the absurdly high volume at which these sites operate — 250,000 words a minute posted on Blogger, 40 hours of video a minute on YouTube, etc. — the liability risk without a safe harbor of some kind is truly astronomical, running into the billions of dollars a day. So you don’t get a YouTube, or a Facebook, or a Blogger, etc. without something like sec. 512; it’s no accident, as I’ve pointed out before, that all of the largest Web 2.0 sites on the global net are based here in the US. And, among other things, if you don’t have a TouTube, or a Facebook, or a Twitter, Hosni Mubarak is still the President of Egypt.
So there’s a lot at stake in how the 2d Circuit — widely regarded, along with the 9th Circuit, as the source of the most important copyright doctrine — interprets the statute. Precedent up to now (mostly in the 9th Circuit) has (correctly) given service providers very broad protection under the statutory immunity; to make a very long story short, the service providers (like YouTube) have no duty to find infringing material that may be present on their site, or to do anything about infringing material on their site, unless and until the existence of the infringement(s) is brought to their attention by the copyright holder. Once they receive such a notification from the copyright holder (through a detailed set of procedures laid out in the statute), they have to act — removing or disabling access to the offending material (and informing the user that they’ve done so). But without receiving the notice of infringement, they’re under no duty to act, and they’re within the safe harbor if the copyright holder subsequently asserts a claim against them.
The content providers don’t like it, needless to say. They’d like YouTube to, say, take down everything uploaded to the site that is labelled “The Daily Show,” for instance, or “Lionel Messi’s Fabulous Goal vs Arsenal,” on the grounds that they should know of the infringing nature of the postings, without having to be specifically informed of that by the copyright holder. If you want to know why that’s both wrong (as a matter of statutory construction) and absurd (as a matter of public policy), read the brief. [It’s pretty short – 18 pages or so of text — and the prose, of course, is crystalline).
If the 2d Circuit endorses the 9th Circuit position — and I fervently hope that it does — that battle, at least, is probably over; there’s not much copyright doctrine out there where the 2d and 9th Circuits are in agreement but some other circuit (or the Supreme Court, for that matter) takes an opposing view.