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Remember when Napster downloads were about as controversial as Internet copyright infringement got? Yeah, I miss those days.
Variety reported today on the latest in the Hollywood/New Media copyright battle. In the lawsuit filed by Viacom against Google/YouTube, it looks like the federal jury is learning in favor of the defendant. The $1 billion infringement claim was filed because of an alleged breach of copyright, due to the numerous videos featuring Viacom-owned content uploaded throughout YouTube-- that includes clips from CBS TV shows, Paramount movies, The Jersey Shore, you name it.
Viacom's allegations stem from a belief that Google and YouTube have deliberately turned a blind eye towards protection of copyrighted videos, the latest in a series of often-ugly accusations as traditional forms of media continue to fall away. The issue isn't over the legality of sharing copyrighted material, of course; that's always going to be a legal no-no. The big question here is of liability. While Google/YouTube removes content flagged under a complaint of copyright violation, the damage has often already been done. However, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act protects networks and organizations who've made an effort to eliminate flagged content.
What this all boils down to is that Viacom--and Hollywood in general--perceives this as a stopgap measure that will always lead to sources like YouTube begging for forgiveness instead of proactively banning the upload of copyrighted material. Once the material's been found online and flagged, it's sort of like closing the barn door after all the horsies have run off. There's an undercurrent here that this latest development is the legalese version of a shrug and an exclamation of "Hey, this is a new media world. Deal with it." You can go after the little guys (aka the file-sharers themselves) but, as we learned in the Napster era, that's an equally hard arena in which to trace culpability.
I'm on both sides of this fence; I totally understand that there's copyrighted content oozing out of every conceivable place on YouTube, and I don't think it's going anywhere anytime soon--it's so omnipresent that people are going to continue to perceive it as "free." If people don't feel like they're stealing, even when they sort of are, they won't stop. And if you remove the largest and most direct means of punishment from this system, as seems to be happening as the outcome of this lawsuit, well, the deluge of pilfered, copyrighted content is only going to get bigger.
This is a mess with no easy answer, and in the long run, if a solution isn't met that continues to allow Viacom and Hollywood as a whole to safely, securely, and consistently monetize their products, it will ultimately negatively impact the movies and TV we love.
I don't believe that's going to happen, though. Video didn't really kill the radio star, VCR didn't destroy moviegoing or TV-watching, and the internet didn't make my DVD player commit seppuku. Some of the most savvy, creative, and ruthless people on the planet helm the entertainment industry; ultimately, it's a business about giving people what they want and doing it well enough to turn a profit.
The way of the world, as now and always, is "change or die." Hollywood's going to have to find a way to accept that rampant new-media sharing of copyrighted material is the new normal, regardless of whether or not it's moral. I have faith they'll figure it out, and keep finding ways to get me to gladly part with my well-earned money.
The only certainty is that, for the moment, it's an uncomfortable situation both for industry professionals and film and TV lovers. More, as always, as it develops.