Jerks vs. Jerks: The Viacom-YouTube Case

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It's always refreshing when legal proceedings reach the point when all the internal, confidential communications that companies really don't want you to see are finally made public. It's moments like these when you're reminded that, at the end of the day, every big company is pretty much run by a bunch of jerks. The Viacom vs. YouTube battle is no exception: as both sides try to get the case settled without a trial, the court documents unsealed this week by U.S. District Judge Louis Stanton are a tour-de-force in jerky executive tricks. I'm aware the various litigants don't care, of course, as the case is for all the marbles -- $1 billion -- but the fact remains that they're all a bunch of jerks.

I will admit that in my dewy-eyed naivete, my first instinct was to sympathize with YouTube -- the spunky new media startup that was putting the power of video publishing in the hands of regular people. Sure, some users were bound to abuse this innovative platform by posting copyrighted video content in violation of the user agreement, but that's hardly YouTube's fault, right? Wrong: while claiming to disapprove and discourage such behavior, some of YouTube's top executives were actively encouraging it to build the site's traffic and market value for eventual resale. As co-founder Jawed Karim reasoned in a 2005 email: "We'll be an excellent acquisition target once we're huge." It worked: in 2006 Google ponied up $1.8 billion for the site, and everyone made out like bandits -- which, in a sense, they were.

True, internal emails show co-founder Steve Chen trying to persuade Karim to stop uploading illegal videos, with Chen emailing, "Jawed, please stop putting stolen videos on the site. We're going to have a tough time defending the fact that we're not liable for copyrighted material on the site ... when one of the founders is blatantly stealing content from other sites." YouTube has stated that "the exchange has nothing to do with supposed piracy of media content," but phrases like "blatantly stealing" probably won't help win the battle for public opinion. But elsewhere, in 2005 Chen is seen encouraging piracy, or at least "stealing," with an email about a video clip telling Hurley and Karim to "steal it!" In another exchange, when Hurley asked Chen if he was in favor of stealing movies, Chen replied: "haha ya. Or something." Plausible deniability, or whatever?

Then, just when you get your dander up about those slick, unprincipled types (the spunky new media underdog image thoroughly forgotten) you come to Viacom: whoo boy, what a bunch of jerks. While the YouTube co-founders were trying, somewhat ineptly, to play both sides of the issue, Viacom was doing it on a scale only a giant, unabashedly hypocritical corporation could manage. Among other things, it seems Viacom hired eighteen promotion companies to act as third-party fences posting videos from Viacom properties like MTV and Comedy Central on YouTube, all while denouncing the site for enabling users to post its copyrighted videos.

Some of this may have been intended as a legal ruse, showing that YouTube was unable or unwilling to enforce its rule prohibiting copyrighted video content, but for the most part it seems Viacom was simply trying to take advantage of YouTube's obvious capabilities as a promotional platform, with one executive from Paramount emailing a recommendation to post clips of "behind-the-scenes footage or content from the cutting-room floor so users feel they have found something unique rather than a traditional trailer." In other words, Viacom was trying to have its copyright cake and eat its promotional pudding too. Or something.

1 comment about "Jerks vs. Jerks: The Viacom-YouTube Case".
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  1. Stacey Schaller from SBS Advertising, March 20, 2010 at 6:47 p.m.

    Business as usual. :(

    I have noticed that some of the biggest "film pirates" are filmmakers themselves. Have you ever wondered where those pirated pre-release cuts come from — you know, the ones with time code playing in the frame? I guarantee it isn't from "Joe Mainstreet" in Anytown Kansas.

    Revelations like those in this article really erode public sympathy when companies cry "fowl!" (sic)

    Maybe the judge will order BOTH companies to triple their multi-million dollar legal fees as fines for their hypocrisy. One could hope, anyway. ;)

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