Handing Google a sweeping victory, a federal judge on Wednesday dismissed Viacom's three-year-old copyright infringement lawsuit against YouTube.
Viacom had alleged that YouTube infringed copyright because the site allegedly contained tens of thousands of copyrighted clips uploaded by users. But U.S. District Court Judge Louis Stanton in New York ruled that Google was protected by the safe harbor provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which broadly state that sites are immune from copyright infringement liability for material uploaded by users as long as the sites remove the material upon request.
Those safe harbor provisions have an exception for sites that know they are hosting unlawful material, but Stanton said that exception did not apply in this case.
Stanton specifically rejected Viacom's argument that YouTube should be held liable because its executives were aware that the site was used for infringement. "General knowledge that infringement is 'ubiquitous' does not impose a duty on the service provider to monitor or search its service for infringements," he wrote in a 30-page decision granting Google summary judgment.
"Indeed," Stanton added, "the present case shows that the DMCA notification regime works efficiently: when Viacom over a period of months accumulated some 100,000 videos and then sent one mass takedown notice on February 2, 2007, by the next business day YouTube had removed virtually all of them."
Viacom said it intends to appeal "as soon as possible."
"We believe that this ruling by the lower court is fundamentally flawed and contrary to the language of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the intent of Congress, and the views of the Supreme Court as expressed in its most recent decisions," the company said in a statement. "After years of delay, this decision gives us the opportunity to have the appellate court address these critical issues on an accelerated basis."
YouTube praised the decision. "This is an important victory not just for us, but also for the billions of people around the world who use the web to communicate and share experiences with each other," the company stated.
In his ruling, Stanton rejected all of Viacom's arguments against Google. In addition to rebuffing the theory that YouTube was liable because executives knew of infringement on the site, Stanton also rejected Viacom's position that YouTube was comparable to the peer-to-peer company Grokster. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Grokster was liable because it intentionally induced copyright infringement.
Stanton wrote that Grokster wasn't comparable to YouTube because YouTube removed infringing clips upon request. Stanton also referenced a 2006 email by Viacom's general counsel that said "the difference between YouTube's behavior and Grokster's is staggering."
The judge also adopted YouTube's argument that a Web site has no way of knowing which particular clips are infringing, writing that sites can't readily determine "whether the use has been licensed by the owner, or whether its posting is a 'fair use' of the material, or even whether its copyright owner or licensee objects to its posting."
Google had argued that it couldn't tell which Viacom clips were infringing and which were legitimate because the company itself uploaded many of them. In December Viacom withdrew infringement claims for around 250 clips -- including around 100 that were uploaded to the site by its agents. Earlier this year, infringement claims for more than 100 additional clips were dropped from the case.
YouTube is at least the second video-sharing site to prevail in a copyright infringement lawsuit. Last year, a federal judge in Los Angeles dismissed a lawsuit by Universal Music Group against video-sharing site Veoh, ruling that the site qualified for the DMCA safe harbors. That judge ruled that the DMCA doesn't require sites to proactively police for piracy; rather, sites need only remove infringing clips upon owners' requests.
Viacom's lawsuit against YouTube drew the attention of a host of industry players, including digital rights groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Knowledge, Web companies like Amazon and Yahoo and some content owners like NBC Universal. The digital rights organizations and other Web companies sided with Google, while NBC and some other rightsholders backed Viacom.