What is Viacom really after in its $1 billion lawsuit against Google over YouTube? Despite a lengthy invite list, Viacom PR was only to drum up "a small press gathering" to listen to CEO Philippe Dauman at a screening for Tropic Thunder last night, according to Greg Sandoval's report on News.com. Dauman called YouTube a "rogue company" — and expressed disappointment that Google did nothing to rein it in. Viacom's now being painted as a rogue itself, seeking to violate YouTube users' privacy in requesting viewing logs from the site.
Nonsense. How typically self-important of Internet users, to think that Viacom cares about the dozens of South Park videos they watched. Viacom is not being disingenuous in saying it never meant to violate Internet users' privacy, I've come to believe.
So why are they seeking the data? The case revolves around the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which gives Internet service providers a "safe harbor" for hosting copyrighted content. But that protection rests on the notion that the people who operate a website don't really know what's on it.
If Viacom can show YouTube cofounders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, or other top officials, viewed copyrighted content while logged into the site, wouldn't that weaken YouTube's rights under the DMCA? Even worse, what if Hurley or Chen uploaded copyrighted clips themselves?
Tellingly, in reaching a deal to protect YouTube users' privacy, Viacom and Google excluded data about YouTube and Google employees' use of the site.
Google's best defense might be to go negative, airing reports about Viacom executives' use of the site. That might not give YouTube any more legal protection — but it would make its legal foes squirm. Viacom's Ifilm subsidiary, for one, has been caught hosting copyrighted content without permission.
There's one thing that might save Chad and Steve: They've never seemed that interested in online video. The pair, both former PayPal employees, stumbled onto the idea, and conceived of YouTube first as a site to host shopping videos for eBay listings, then as a video-dating site. They've always been more interested in cynically exploiting online video as a business than exploring the potential of the medium. An announcement of Google's sale to YouTube is one of the few times the two actually made an appearance on it.
So there's the irony: The less Chad and Steve used YouTube, the more likely they'll come out of this lawsuit unscathed. But Viacom's legal strategy suggests that every video they viewed will count against them.