Google 1, Viacom 0

Viacom is one of those multibillion-dollar companies that no-one has ever heard of. They own Paramount, DreamWorks and a bunch of Cable channels. They considered YouTube such a threat that they sued them for more than a billion dollars in damages.

That was three years ago. Yesterday, a court in San Fransisco handed Viacom their hats and declared Google (Youtube’s owners) the victor in this dispute.

This is not, as many put it, a “Victory” for Google, but it is a victory for a commonsense interpretation of copyright – because like so many in the content industry, Viacom has a fundamental misunderstanding of that Copyright is, and what is isn’t.

  • Copyright is not property: For all the talk about “Intellectual Property”, Copyright is not property at all. It is enshrined as a “limited and exclusive right” to profit from their creations. The slogan “Loaned, not owned” comes to mind.
  • Copyright is not control: Having copyright to something does not give you control over where it is shown, who watches it or what they can do with little bits of it. Unfortunately, companies like Viacom like to yell “PIRACY!” whenever they see anything to can’t control and don’t like, and this is a prime example of that.

A good practical definition of Copyright Infringement is “unauthorized distribution that results in a loss of sales or revenue”

Viacom’s business model revolves around first-run Movies (in theaters), Sales (DVD), Rentals and Broadcasting. Posting movie clips to Youtube does not adversely affect those businesses (except, perhaps to make people aware that some of the over-hyped movies are crap, which is no bad thing). Unfortunately, some willfully post entire movies on Youtube, and those movies can and should be removed whenever found – but it is Viacom’s job to find them, not Google’s/YouTube’s. Google made this point in court, and the court agreed.

One would hope that Viacom would learn from this experience, but, like so many in Hollywood, they have an overinflated idea of themselves, their products and the value of those products. There is no “Billion-dollar loss”, because watching Youtube does not stop people from watching movies. One could make the point that the reverse is true – that Youtube clips may be driving some DVD sales – but Viacom, with their “we-gotta-control-our-property” mentality, are unlikely to believe that.

Yes, the world has changed; these days we have so many different entertainment options that people will watch fewer movies and to spend less on them than they used to when movies and TV were the only options. But that is not YouTube’s fault, and Viacom badly need a dose of common sense.

Sadly, that is unlikely to happen; they are already planning a sequel – an appeal to an higher court.

And I hope that they lose again. Because that kind of stupidity deserves to be severely punished.

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