A decision from a federal district court in New York today affirmed that online hosts shouldn’t have to pay if their users are infringing. The opinion, issued by Judge Louis Stanton of the Southern District of New York, found on summary judgment that Google and YouTube qualified for the safe harbors of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. By acting to take down infringing postings when it was notified of them, YouTube was able to meet the standards of the law, despite the fact that Viacom complained that YouTube generally knew that infringing works were on the site.
I have to admit that my first reaction upon reading the opinion was simply, “Man, that’s a lot of blockquotes.” Judge Stanton fills nearly the first fifteen pages of a thirty-page opinion with straight quotations from the legislative history of the DMCA, and follows that up with quote after quote and citation after citation of cases that have ruled on these issues.
But there’s something telling in that. The wealth of legislative history and precedent visible in this opinion shows just how uncontroversial the decision is. An online host is only liable if it doesn’t take down specific instances of infringement it actually knows about. That’s been well established, as have the principles that the host doesn’t have a duty to actively monitor everything on the site, or that the online service can do more than merely store works. If the parties involved here had been a small video blogger and a local bulletin board, this case would have attracted almost no media attention, because it’s not breaking any new legal ground. The amount of attention—the reason this is a big deal—is really due to the size of the companies and the numbers at stake. The only new ground that could have been broken would have been if the judge had deviated from the history of the statute and the ever-lengthening line of precedent that reaches just the same conclusion.