PhotoGoogle has prevailed -- again -- in a closely-watched lawsuit brought by media giant Viacom. In a ruling that could have major reverberations throughout intellectual property law, a federal judge in New York granted summary judgment to YouTube, rejecting Viacom’s argument that the video site should be held liable for its users posting Viacom-owned material on the platform.

Judge Louis Stanton, of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Manhattan, held that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s “safe harbor provisions” dictate that, because there is no proof that YouTube had knowledge of copyright infringement, it cannot be held liable.

The case began back in March 2007, when Viacom filed suit, claiming that YouTube’s then-recent appearance on the media scene came partly from Viacom-owned content being posted on the site. Viacom pointed out that episodes and clips of copyrighted shows like South Park and Comedy Central’s The Daily Show were regularly posted to YouTube.

Google acquired YouTube for $1.65 billion in 2006.

First summary judgment in 2010

In 2010, Judge Stanton ruled in YouTube’s favor, granting a summary judgment motion. Viacom appealed, and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to Stanton, holding that “a reasonable jury could find that YouTube had actual knowledge or awareness of specific [copyright] infringing activity on its website,” making summary judgment inappropriate.

In holding again for YouTube, Stanton said that given the volume of clips uploaded to YouTube on a daily basis, the Safe Harbor Provision of the DMCA did indeed protect the site.

Viacom argued that YouTube “apparently are unable to say which [video clips] they knew about and which they did not,” and that “[i]t follows, given the applicable burden of proof, that they cannot claim the ... safe harbor [provision]-especially in light of the voluminous evidence showing that [YouTube] had considerable knowledge of the clips on their website, including Viacom-owned material.” 

In a 24-page ruling, Stanton called Viacom’s argument “ingenious, but ... anachronistic.” The judge said that the entire purpose of the safe harbor provision is to protect high-traffic service providers like YouTube -- which has “more than 1 billion daily video views, [and] more than 24 hours of new video uploaded to the site every minute” -- and to “place[] the burden of notifying such service providers of infringements upon the copyright owner or his agent.”

“Great victory for YouTube” 

“The ruling is a great victory for YouTube,” said Eric Goldman, who directs the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University School of Law, in an interview with TIME Magazine. “The judge emphatically rejected all of Viacom’s arguments, as well as its spin on the facts. Given that Viacom has made no real progress in this case after 6 years of litigating, the judge’s ruling reinforces how the entire lawsuit has been a waste of time and resources for everyone concerned.”

Viacom has vowed to press on, saying in a statement that “[t]his ruling ignores the opinions of the higher courts and completely disregards the rights of creative artists.”

“We continue to believe that a jury should weigh the facts of this case and the overwhelming evidence that YouTube willfully infringed on our rights, and we intend to appeal the decision,” Viacom’s statement continued.

YouTube founder Chad Hurley was considerably more upbeat. In a Twitter posting, apparently referencing Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman, Hurley said, "Hey Philippe, wanna grab a beer to celebrate?! YouTube Again Beats Viacom's Massive Copyright Infringement Lawsuit."

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