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[ NNSquad ] Viacom vs. YouTube Lawsuit Meets Sergio Leone

                Viacom vs. YouTube Lawsuit Meets Sergio Leone


Greetings.  By now you've probably heard about the release of rather
explosive court documents related to Viacom's three-year-old lawsuit
against Google's YouTube, seeking [Cue Dr. Evil] one BILLION dollars
in damages.  Both Viacom's filing ( http://bit.ly/c5nOev [pdf] ) and
Google's filing ( http://bit.ly/9pPmBN [pdf] ) make for fascinating
but highly discomforting reading.

Yet as painful as these documents may be, they represent only the tip
of the iceberg relating to complex changes occurring throughout the
Internet and the world.

The dramatic essence of the filings can be imperfectly but quickly

Viacom points to what many observers would categorize as rather
arrogant and cavalier e-mail communications between YouTube's founders
as supposed proof of a massive disregard for copyright laws.  (Note to
self: Avoid casual use of the word "evil" in tactical planning being
discussed via e-mail, even in jest.)  Viacom also points to internal
dissent at Google regarding their potential purchase of YouTube and
what was described as YouTube's heavily "pirated" content.

Google's document accuses Viacom of an astoundingly bizarre, massive,
and utterly hypocritical stealth campaign to upload Viacom videos to
YouTube even as Viacom was complaining about the videos' presence on
YouTube itself ( http://bit.ly/afZaZT [YouTube Blog] ), including
hiring outsiders to do uploading (sometimes from sites such as Kinko's
to obscure sources) and the use of "uglification" processing
techniques to give the uploaded videos a more "amateur" gloss.  Google
also notes that Viacom's selective quoting of YouTube e-mail
communications out of context cannot reasonably be expected to convey
an accurate sense of deliberations within YouTube at that time.

Further complicating the situation is that Viacom itself had attempted
to purchase YouTube before Google did actually acquire YouTube!  And
an interesting footnote: Viacom and YouTube seem to generally work
pretty well together today.

But back to our story. 

Uglification -- yes, that seems like the right word.  The lawsuit
documents -- taken at face value anyway -- make for a fairly ugly
picture on both sides.

But rather than focus solely on the star players, let's pull out for
the long shot and try bring the broader issues into focus.

Perhaps the late Sergio Leone's film work can help us. 

While reading the Viacom and Google documents, I inexplicably found
myself thinking about Leone's 1966 film masterpiece "Il Buono, il
Brutto, il Cattivo" (U.S. title: "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly") --
one of my favorite films ( http://bit.ly/dtoUjh [YouTube] ).

Vastly more than a simple Western, GBU is an intense portrait of very
different, very human, and certainly imperfect individuals in the
chaos of a rapidly changing world -- by necessity working together
toward a common goal of gold -- while at times also trying to kill
each other.  Highly recommended.  Do watch it if you can.

A fascinating aspect of the film's three main characters is that even
while doing things that are clearly dishonorable at best -- and in
some cases far worse, they are not merely black and white caricatures.
They all exhibit aspects of ugly, good, and bad -- and a large dose of
opportunism -- driving their actions forward through the storm of
events (in this case the Civil War) surrounding them.

Today we're long past the Civil War, but we're well enmeshed in the
Internet Content Wars.

Computing and Internet technologies have rendered fundamentally
impotent the duplication and distribution cost elements that
traditionally have protected copyrighted audio and video works, by
virtue of it previously being inconveniently expensive in most cases
to routinely obtain such materials from other than "official" sources.

But as I noted in "Copyright: Dead Man Walking" ( http://bit.ly/drbTy ), 
the copyright game has fundamentally changed, and no amount of
nostalgia for the "good old days" will put that genie back into his

As in Leone's GBU vision of the Civil War, there are chaotic aspects
to the Content Wars as well.  Some countries, including Western ones
like Australia and New Zealand, are implementing ludicrous attempts at
content filtering (China's censorship we already know about, of
course.)  Criminal convictions have taken place against Google
executives over YouTube content in Italy.  Google insists (correctly,
in my opinion) that YouTube properly adheres to the U.S. DMCA and that
YouTube's content fingerprinting system helps avoid copyright abuse.

But calls to pre-screen YouTube content before making it publicly
available have been rising.  Such screening procedures are completely
impractical given the rate of YouTube uploads (currently running at
something like 24 hours of video uploaded per real-time minute, and
rising fast) -- even if it was straightforward to untangle myriad
fair-use and other related issues associated with user-submitted video
clips -- which definitely isn't the case.  And on and on ...

Governor Tarkin said to Darth Vader: "This bickering is pointless."

And so it is.  Ending the global Content Wars will not happen
overnight.  Perhaps we're looking at some sort of War Without End as
domestic sensibilities conflict with an inherently borderless
Internet.  Perhaps.  But I don't believe that such an unproductive
course is inevitable.

There may be enough dirt to go around in Viacom vs. YouTube.  Yet I
would argue that cooperation is the naturally most beneficial state
for entities such as Google/YouTube and Viacom.  The time, money, and
human energy being wasted in battles like this is disgraceful and

Search engines, content aggregators, content providers, content
producers, and the other various aspects of the Internet content
ecosystem -- they, and Internet consumers as well of course, all have
chords to play in this vast symphony of technology and creativity.

Future historians may look back on this period of the Internet's
genesis and chuckle at our naivete.  "How could those ancients have
possibly thought that they could keep obsolete concepts of copyright
and content control alive in the face of the revolution represented by
the Internet, even way back then?"

At the end of Leon's GBU, two of the main protagonists, one of whom 
is -- well, "hanging around" at the time -- "agree" to share the 
proceeds of their long quest.  "Four for you ... and four for me!" 
( http://bit.ly/cNDMxI [YouTube] )

There was plenty to go around.  And there still is.

Lauren Weinstein
Tel: +1 (818) 225-2800
Co-Founder, PFIR
   - People For Internet Responsibility - http://www.pfir.org
Co-Founder, NNSquad
   - Network Neutrality Squad - http://www.nnsquad.org
Founder, GCTIP - Global Coalition 
   for Transparent Internet Performance - http://www.gctip.org
Founder, PRIVACY Forum - http://www.vortex.com
Member, ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy
Lauren's Blog: http://lauren.vortex.com
Twitter: https://twitter.com/laurenweinstein