It never ceases to amaze me what even sophisticated business people will write in an e-mail. The executives of YouTube obviously are sophisticated, both in business and technology, yet e-mails that surfaced in a major copyright lawsuit with Viacom have seriously damaged YouTube’s defense and could have major repercussions for the company.
In Viacom Int’l, Inc. v. YouTube, Inc., No. 10-3370 (2d Cir.), Viacom is suing YouTube for copyright infringement. The Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) grants YouTube and other internet companies a “safe harbor” from copyright liability when members of the public upload copyrighted material to those companies’ servers for viewing by other users. However, the DMCA “safe harbor” is unavailable to a company that has actual knowledge of specific infringing material on its system.
YouTube won the case on summary judgment in the trial court. Under the standard applied by the trial court, YouTube was eligible for safe harbor protection from liability unless it knew of “specific and identifiable infringements of particular individual items.” Essentially under the prevailing standard applied by the trial court, an internet company like YouTube could await a “takedown notice” from the copyright owner before removing infringing material. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit modified the standard, but key to that decision were e-mails by YouTube’s management showing that YouTube welcomed infringing material being uploaded to its website.
For example, when one of YouTube’s founders urged his colleagues “to start being diligent about rejecting copyrighted / inappropriate content,”and mentioned an infringing clip taken from CNN, one of those colleagues wrote back by e-mail:
but we should just keep that stuff on the site. i really don’t see what will happen. what? someone from cnn sees it? he happens to be someone with power? he happens to want to take it down right away. he gets in touch with cnn legal. 2 weeks later, we get a cease & desist letter. we take the video down.
A different executive responded that he liked the CNN clip. He directed that YouTube could “remove [the CNN clip] once we’re bigger and better known, but for now that clip is fine.”
These e-mails and other internal communications of a similar vein were the key pieces of evidence that led the Second Circuit to reverse the judgment in favor of YouTube and to send the case back to the trial court for a trial.
The Second Circuit’s decision has major significance for copyright enforcement and application of the all-important DMCA safe harbor. (Click here for the link to the Court’s opinion.)