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Copyright war flares with suit vs. YouTube

Clips from Viacom programs such as "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "SpongeBob SquarePants" turn up on YouTube. (AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

A lawsuit filed by entertainment giant Viacom Inc., seeking more than $1 billion in damages against video-sharing website YouTube and its parent company Google Inc., raises the volume on one of the hottest debates in the technology business: Can Internet sites post snippets of content produced by others without paying them?

In the suit filed in federal court in the Southern District of New York yesterday, Viacom claimed that YouTube has displayed more than 160,000 unauthorized video clips from Viacom's stable of cable-television networks, including MTV, Comedy Central, and Nickelodeon, and that the clips -- some of which run for several minutes -- have been viewed over 1.5 billion times by YouTube visitors.

While the case is focused on the field of online video, it could have ramifications for old-line media seeking to protect their ownership of content and for any site that pulls content from other sources.

"For anybody who is in the business of adding value on the Internet, of helping people find things or bringing content together, this could affect their business," said Jonathan L. Zittrain , professor of Internet governance and regulation at Oxford University in England.

Google, one of the many sites that pull together Internet content from a variety of sources, has enjoyed soaring profits by tying advertising to the lists of other sites culled by its search engine. But the company has come under mounting criticism in recent months.

Last October, the Association of American Publishers filed its own suit against Google, alleging the company used its book-search initiative to "make millions of dollars by freeloading on the talent and property of authors and publishers," in the words of the group's president, Patricia Schroeder, a former US representative from Colorado. The service, which is still in development, allows Web users to find passages in books Google has digitized.

Earlier this month, in a speech to the publishers' group, Thomas Rubin , associate general counsel for Google's archrival, Microsoft Corp., which makes most of its money from selling software, termed Google's business model "troubling" and accused the Mountain View, Calif., company of skirting copyright law. "Google has chosen the wrong path for the longer term because it systematically violates copyright and deprives authors and publishers of an important avenue for monetizing their works," Rubin told the group.

Viacom's lawsuit yesterday echoed those sentiments, charging that "YouTube has harnessed technology to willfully infringe copyrights on a huge scale, depriving writers, composers and performers of the rewards they are owed for effort and innovation, reducing the incentives of America's creative industries."

Responding to the suit, Google issued a statement defending YouTube. "We are confident that YouTube has respected the legal right of copyright holders and believe the courts will agree," it said, adding that, "We will certainly not let this suit become a distraction to the continuing growth and strong performance of YouTube." Google's brief statement didn't address specific allegations in the Viacom suit.

Google and YouTube have 30 days to respond to the Viacom suit, though the response period could be extended. Some analysts said they expected the legal proceedings to be drawn out.

"This is one of the first significant corporate challenges Google has faced," said Allen Weiner , research vice president for the technology consulting firm Gartner Inc. in Scottsdale, Ariz. He likened the scrutiny that will accompany the suit to that surrounding the Microsoft antitrust case earlier in the decade, in which the software maker was challenged for using its monopoly to quash competition. "How it handles this will affect its standing with consumers and with the investment community."

Weiner said Google could quiet the rising chorus of critics by using filtering technology to keep copyrighted clips off of YouTube.

Other media companies, including CBS Corp. and NBC Universal, have previously signed deals licensing some content to be posted on YouTube . And some think that the Viacom lawsuit could be a precursor to a deal between Viacom, run by media magnate Sumner Redstone, and YouTube.

"What it really boils down to is that Viacom wants to negotiate a deal so that they get a cut every time someone views their content on YouTube," suggested Zittrain at Oxford University.

Clips from Viacom programs such as "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "SpongeBob SquarePants" routinely turn up on YouTube. But other video-sharing sites, blogs, and social networking sites also post movie trailers, music, news stories, book excerpts, and other content gleaned from the Internet. Depending on the outcome of the Viacom suit, it could set legal precedents for other content-sharing activity.

Viacom set the stage for the lawsuit last month when it sent YouTube notices of more than 100,000 specific copyright violations and demanded that the video clips it cited be removed . Now it seeks monetary damages and an injunction prohibiting YouTube and Google, which purchased the video-sharing site for $1.76 billion in November, from further infringement on Viacom copyrights.

Jeremy Zweig , a spokesman for Viacom in New York, said the entertainment company initially challenged YouTube under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, which requires sites that are served notice of copyright violations to take down the offending content. While the content Viacom cited was removed from YouTube, much of it was reposted by the site's users. "We tried to negotiate with them for months and months," Zweig said. "At this point, we felt like we needed to do something more."

Zittrain, who is also a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, said the practice of websites using the work of others is commonplace online . He said old-line media companies like Viacom have mixed feelings about sites such as YouTube because they give more exposure to television shows even though the entertainment companies don't get paid for the use of their clips.

"The name of the game in Web 2.0 is people building on other people's work," Zittrain said, referring to the newest wave of Internet activity. "And every time that happens, it is not necessarily a money-making event for the downstream contributor."

Robert Weisman can be reached at