from the December 18, 2006 edition -
The YouTube world opens an untamed frontier for copyright law
By Daniel B. Wood | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
Larry Richard is one of the millions to have discovered the world of
YouTube, the free website that allows people to post, watch, and share
video clips. When he receives a link to the site, usually via e-mail,
he spends a few moments to click and watch a clip on his computer
screen -- sometimes a video of a friend's singing recital, other times
a snippet of a foreign commercial or a monologue from late-night TV.
"It's entertaining, it's information, it's a community of people
sharing things," says Mr. Richard, a marketing consultant in Santa
Monica, Calif. But is it legal, given that at least some of what he's
watching is copyrighted material being disseminated by individuals who
clearly do not hold the copyright?
The law on this matter is murky, and likely to get murkier before it
gets clearer, say experts in intellectual property law.
Several companies such as Time Warner have been threatening YouTube
with copyright infringement lawsuits. Now that Internet giant Google
has purchased YouTube, experts expect that the rampant disregard of
copyright law shown by early YouTube users, at least, is likely to get
resolved -- but they caution that each successive new technology can
put early users, in particular, on nebulous legal ground, especially
if financial profit is involved.
"As more and more technology comes along, the legal underpinnings
governing them are not becoming clearer," says Mark McCreary, a partner
in the Technology and Venture Finance Group of Fox Rothschild, which
handles intellectual property cases. Increasing ability to download
video clips from YouTube and to watch videos on iPods and cellphones
will present users with more opportunities to violate copyright --
wittingly or unwittingly, he says.
Still, those who watch videos at YouTube - whether or not such content
is copyrighted -- are unlikely to be pursued with the same fervor with
which the music industry prosecuted those who downloaded music free of
charge via the file-sharing website Napster, say Mr. McCreary and other
"The very big difference between today's YouTube and the music-sharing
of MP3 files of several years ago is that you have to watch and you
can't -- absent the knowledge of advanced hackers -- copy it for your
own use," says David Axtell, an intellectual property specialist at
the law firm Leonard, Street and Deinard in Minneapolis. "During
Napster's heyday, people were making their own digital copies and
using them on their own."
But concerns should be higher for those who actually submit videos for
posting and watching, say Mr. Axtell and others. Because copying and
distributing copyrighted material is illegal, people who post that
material on YouTube without permission are more likely to be held
"There certainly will be more litigation, and Google has set aside
hundreds of millions in a war chest in recognition of this," says
Kevin Parks, a copyright specialist with the law firm Leydig, Voit and
Mayer in Chicago.
On the side of the YouTubites are those who argue that use of such
copyrighted material falls into "fair use" provisions of the law.
"It's up to the courts to continually balance the rights of those who
own copyrighted material with the need for society to adapt to
emerging technology," says Perry Binder, assistant professor of legal
studies at Georgia State University.
Copyright laws, which give exclusive legal right to a writer, editor,
composer, publisher or distributor to publish, produce, sell, or
distribute an artistic work are unambiguous, experts say. But how many
copies of something a person may make for personal use is far more
open to interpretation by judges and courts.
Mr. Binder says movie and TV industries are figuring out how to handle
the more serious abuses, such as excessive downloading by casual
users, profiting from the sale of a downloaded video, and having a
website that links to copyrighted videos, particularly if the Web page
profits from drawing traffic to the pages.
"These people should expect 'cease and desist' letters from attornies
and face the threat of a lawsuit if copyrighted material is not taken
down immediately," says Binder.
For its part, YouTube directs users to common-sense "Dos and Don'ts"
at its online help center. Users are asked not to send pornography,
videos of dangerous or illegal acts (such as animal abuse or
bombmaking), violence, and to avoid the malicious use of stereotypes.
"We ask our users to respect copyrighted material and to only upload
videos they have made or obtained the rights to use," says Jenny
Nielsen, marketing manager at YouTube. "Our policy prohibits
inappropriate content ... users can flag content they feel is
inappropriate and once it is flagged, YouTube reviews the material and
reserves the right to remove videos from the system."
Meanwhile, YouTube's power has prompted content creators to see how
they can make money from the site's content that is copyrighted.
Companies such as CBS and three major recording companies -- Universal
Music Group, Warner Music, and Sony BMG Music Entertainment -- have
inked deals with Google/YouTube to share revenues generated by
copyrighted content on the site.
As part of an experimental "brand channel" at the site, CBS in October
agreed to offer free video clips for downloading. By Thanksgiving, 300
such clips had drawn 30 million viewers. More than 35,000 have
subscribed to the free channel and CBS claims its "Late Show with
David Letterman" now boasts 200,000 more viewers and its "Late Late
Show with Craig Ferguson" has 7 percent more viewers.
"YouTube has not only held the threats at bay, but also shown it can
be a revenue boon for old media," says Chris Taylor, senior editor of
Business 2.0 Magazine.
Copyright 2006 The Christian Science Publishing Society.
NOTE: For more telecom/internet/networking/computer news from the
daily media, check out our feature 'Telecom Digest Extra' each day at
http://telecom-digest.org/td-extra/more-news.html . Hundreds of new
articles daily. And, discuss this and other topics in our forum at
For more news and headlines each day from NY Times, Christian Science
Monitor and National Public Radio, please go to: