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Viacom's Not Coming to Get You

23 Jul, 2008 By: Chris Tribbey

The world of YouTube and viral videos has changed how our society works.

Nobodies in their mothers' basements find instant fame. Goofs by celebrities and politicians that would have otherwise gone unnoticed are captured for worldwide audiences, and then show up on prime-time news.

A video of a prairie dog mixed with intense music gets millions of views, and then spawns spin-offs that get millions of views. A mock 300 YouTube video gets picked up by an independent distributor and turned into a feature-length direct-to-video release.

It's intriguing and insane at the same time.

And this ability for anyone to watch almost anything instantly on the Web has resulted in hard questions about the public's access to copyrighted work, and who's responsible for violating video copyrights.

Viacom Inc. has been fighting with Google, owner of YouTube, over this issue for more than a year now, and this month won a key judgment in its $1 billion suit that quickly earned the wrath of YouTube users. Viacom argues Google hasn't done enough to prevent copyrighted material from showing up on YouTube, and the federal judge in the case has granted Viacom access to all YouTube viewership records.

Viacom says it will use this information to show that users watch just as much copyrighted material as user-generated video. YouTube users were quick to accuse the corporation of getting ready to go after them, the end users.

It's natural for consumers to mistrust giant corporations. But YouTube users and others who called for a boycott of Viacom products overreacted. Viacom and YouTube have agreed not to disclose any personal information about YouTube users, including Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. And it would have been nearly impossible for Viacom to go after YouTube users who simply viewed copyrighted material (not to mention fiscally suicidal).

Viacom would have had to prove that hundreds of millions of viewers actively sought to violate copyrights by watching the video, and nobody can prove that viewers know what content violates copyrights and what doesn't. Only those uploading copyrighted content — on YouTube, on peer-to-peer networks, on MySpace pages — are violating the law. The rest of us are just watching them do it.

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