Viacom vs. Google: the preview

When Viacom filed its billion-dollar suit against Google over the media company’s content that finds its way onto YouTube, most folks assumed it was just another step in a business negotiation. It undoubtedly was. But it’s just as likely that the two sides are deady serious about testing some legal theory along the way. For the good of the media industry in particular, this suit ought to go as far as possible in order to clear up who owns what online.

The first step is weeks away. The two sides will meet with a judge in New York on July 27, a first stage that could lead to preliminary hearings next year.

Neither company is backing down. Viacom (VIA) CEO Philippe Dauman (his employee, Stephen Colbert, hilariously refers to him as the Dough Man) and Google (GOOG) CEO Eric Schmidt appeared on the same stage last week at the Wall Street Journal’s D conference. The separate interviews, plus another with YouTube co-founders Steve Chen and Chad Hurley, provided a preview of how this suit will play out.

A quick synopsis: Viacom sued Google in March, alleging that YouTube is aiding and abetting copyright infringement by not speedily removing Viacom’s intellectual property when YouTube users illegally post it. Google claims it is protected by the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, which Google believes requires IP owners to ask a Web site to take down their content.

Each CEO gave a little hint of things to come. Dauman said his company devotes dozens of people and “hundreds of thousands of dollars a month” to policing YouTube. He said Google promised to add filtering technology to YouTube but that deadlines were missed, provoking the suit. He also said he thinks Google thought its “cool company” status would scare away litigation. Wrong.

For his part, Schmidt said he wishes Viacom had waited and given Google a longer time to implement filtering technology. He’s fond of saying that Google isn’t a content company — the implication being that Google isn’t infringing on anyone’s copyrights.

Where will this suit go? For companies that admit to being in the content busienss, it should go to court. The DMCA was meant to protect Web hosting companies. Google isn’t a Web hosting company. No matter how forcefully Schmidt says so, it’s every bit as much a presenter of content as radio stations. (They were forced to pay music publishers as the result of a 1920s-era copyright fight.) What’s more, if Google’s filtering technology isn’t ready, does the company have any business running YouTube? Isn’t that just a bit evil, no matter how you read the DMCA?

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