This week, a number of library, industry, and public interest groups (including PK) filed a friend of the court brief in the Viacom-YouTube case, explaining how Viacom’s interpretation of copyright law contrasts with Congress’ intent in passing that law.
A lot of the case hinges on the interpretation of a part of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), variously called “section 512,” or the “notice-and-takedown provisions,” or the “safe harbor provisions.” This is the section of the DMCA that (basically) says that an online service provider won’t have to pay damages for content placed on its system by its users, so long as it doesn’t know that the content placed on the system is infringing and that it takes down infringing content when it is properly notified of it. These safe harbors let a variety of online services like website hosts, blogs with comments, online forums, and video hosting sites, continue to do business without having to screen every single piece of user-generated or user-uploaded content for potential infringement.
Viacom’s complaint makes several arguments that erode the protections of the safe harbor provisions. First, Viacom argues that merely knowing that infringing content is on YouTube generally pulls YouTube out of the safe harbor and triggers liability. As the brief notes, this interpretation not only goes against the wording and structure of the statute (which refers to identifying specific infringing materials, not just knowledge of generalized infringement), it also subverts the purpose of the statute—just a few bad actors on any service would render the entire legal structure put in place by Congress obsolete, as the safe harbor and notice and takedown regime would disappear with that generalized knowledge.
Viacom also points to a requirement in the safe harbor provisions that says that a host doesn’t get the safe harbor if it “receive[s] a financial benefit directly attributable to the infringing activity, in a case in which the service has the right and ability to control such activity.” Viacom, arguing that Youtube’s ad revenue meets this definition, therefore claims that the safe harbors don’t apply to YouTube. However, in passing the law, Congress expressly noted that merely taking money form a subscriber who happened to infringe wasn’t enough—if an infringer is just paying the same fee for a service, or generating the same revenue for you by virtue of being a user or customer, that’s not enough to remove the safe harbor. The sort of “direct financial benefit” contemplated was one where the fees paid to the service were directly related to the accessing of infringing material—something that certainly wasn’t happening with YouTube.
The point of the brief is not to argue all the possible legal arguments in the case—it’s to provide some insight to the court on a particular subject to help it make its decision. In this case, the brief serves to show just where Congress intended the boundaries of the safe harbor provisions to be, and how squarely so many service providers—YouTube included—fit within them.