Perhaps you heard toward the end of last week about the Viacom/YouTube tussle going before the courts. While it’s not specifically HD related, and the case is now three-years old, the legal wrangling is fun to watch and does have some impact on the quality of videos you’ll see on YouTube as well as YouTube’s potential beyond infantile humor related posts and bad 80’s music videos.Viacom, the media giant that owns and controls cable channels such as Comedy Central, MTV and TV Land, among other assets under the MTV Networks umbrella, has claimed since early 2007 that YouTube users were uploading copyright protected content with the seemingly tacit approval of YouTube head-honchos and parent-company Google. Viacom demanded through DCMA notices that all of its copyrighted content be taken down and that Google provide user data focusing on the uploading of over 160,000 unauthorized video clips. This led to a big brouhaha in summer of 2008 regarding the privacy rights of users, which Google and Viacom are settling through compromise.
The big development from last week has YouTube and Google now contending that, wait for it— Viacom has been secretly uploading purposefully degraded versions of its content on YouTube through phony accounts in order to virally promote and sell its wares to YouTube users. If that’s so, it’s one helluva subversive marketing ploy by Viacom and could lead to the court invalidating Viacom’s most basic arguments about Google/YouTube’s intentions. You can read the bulk of Google’s take on the matter via their blog, but the gist of it is that Google claims that Viacom used upwards of 18 different marketing agencies to do the deed. By purposefully “roughing up” the look of the videos, using fake email accounts to gain YouTube access and, the real gem, sending employees out to area Kinkos locations to upload the videos via their rental computers, Google is claiming Viacom used YouTube to publicize and promote their shows to YouTube users. Google goes so far to claim that Viacom executives condoned this and did not want content taken down fearing that lack of their content on the video distribution site would kill their efforts to self-promote their branded content, even as Viacom claimed copyright infringement. Google now has some legal ammo to show that Viacom’s claim is tough to prove since, according to Viacom and their legal team they even had a tough time figuring out which was the actual illegal content and which was a clip uploaded as part of their marketing tactics.
This will prove interesting as the case continues onward. The legal wrangling has always seemed a case of sour grapes brought on by Viacom being unable to simply buy YouTube, but Google has more at stake when push comes to shove. Without the big major studios and content providers, Google has had a tough time competing as a go-to destination for movies and television shows, though they’re still king of the video hill when it comes to a mash-up of Christian Bale verbally abusing little David on the way home from the dentist. That link’s NSFW, folks, but it’s funny nevertheless and isn’t that the main reason we all flock to YouTube anyway? In the end, it depends on what Google wants from YouTube… a profit driven studio-licensed content machine, or a democratic sharing point for user created content that sometimes transcends the lowest-common denominator in entertainment. Still, this development seems like a Google win, with Viacom now defending its tactics rather than trouncing Google on a cut-and-dried case of copyright infringement.