Today Judge Louis Stanton of the federal court in the Southern District of New York granted YouTube's Motion for Summary Judgment in the Viacom v. YouTube litigation, rejecting the effort by Viacom and other copyright owners to hold YouTube responsible for infringing material uploaded by a tiny minority of YouTube users. EFF and a coalition of public interest and industry groups had filed an amicus brief supporting YouTube in the case.
The ruling is the latest in a series of court rulings upholding the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) safe harbors against the persistent attacks of the entertainment industry. YouTube and all other "user-generated content" sites rely on these safe harbors to shield themselves from copyright infringement liability based on the activities of their millions of users. In this case, the plaintiffs argued that because YouTube had general knowledge that infringing videos were available on the service, it should be stripped of the safe harbor protections (of course, since every public hosting service knows that some users will infringe, that would make the DMCA safe harbors meaningless). The court flatly rejected this view:
[I]f a service provider knows (from notice from the owner, or a “red flag”) of specific instances of infringement, the provider must promptly remove the infringing material. If not, the burden is on the owner to identify the infringement. General knowledge that infringement is “ubiquitous” does not impose a duty on the service provider to monitor or search its service for infringements.
Without the DMCA safe harbors, sites like YouTube, eBay, Blogger, Wikipedia, and Flickr simply wouldn't exist. Where online platforms for free expression are concerned, it's unavoidable that some users will (knowingly or unknowingly) upload infringing material. The DMCA safe harbors give service providers like YouTube a strong incentive to remove content upon receipt of a takedown notice (Viacom sent 100,000 notices to YouTube in one day; virtually all the videos were gone by the next business day). In exchange, those service providers are shielded from copyright infringement liability.
So today's ruling, while a big win for YouTube, is hardly groundbreaking. It simply reconfirms what lawyers for Internet companies have been telling their clients for years, based on the plain language of the DMCA safe harbors. Of course, the fight is hardly over—Viacom has already vowed to appeal. Moreover, you can be sure that reversing this ruling and re-writing the DMCA safe harbors will be high on Hollywood's list of items for the Obama Administration's "comprehensive review" of copyright law, announced just yesterday.
UPDATE: Prof. Eric Goldman's excellent blog coverage provides more detail on the legal nuances of the ruling.