On March 13, 2007, Viacom (the parent company of BET, Comedy Central and Paramount Pictures) filed a $1 billion lawsuit in federal court claiming that YouTube and Google, Inc. profited from the posting of thousands of unauthorized copyrighted clips. Viacom also claimed that YouTube did not do enough to keep copyrighted material off the site. On June 23, 2010, Judge Louis Stanton of the Southern District of New York granted YouTube’s motion for summary judgment against all of Viacom’s direct and secondary copyright infringement claims. Judge Stanton ruled that YouTube was entitled to the “safe harbor” protection of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The judge recognized Viacom’s claim that YouTube was generally aware of and even encouraged copyright-infringing material to be placed on its site, but he found that when YouTube was notified of specific infringing works, it took them down as required by the DMCA.
For three years the litigation had proceeded largely without any public comment because all of the legal documents had been filed under seal. That changed in March, 2010 when both sides agreed to make public their summary judgment motions and other related materials.
After the seal was broken, it is fascinating that the two large, content driven entities would use sharply contrasting litigation communications strategies to court public opinion. Viacom quickly launched a robust website dedicated to the litigation, and filled it with content, such as the pleadings, press releases, and Viacom’s perspective on its legal claims and YouTube’s defenses. On the other hand, YouTube’s employed a "less is more" litigation communications strategy. Its first communication of its public position appeared in a March 18, 2010 posting on its official blog, immediately after a March 17, 2010 posting inviting the submissions of questions for a James Cameron interview, and followed by a March 25, 2010 posting announcing the launch of YouTube Edu.
Even though it appeared to be buried on its website, the March 18, 2010 posting did garner media attention. This may have occurred because it was authored by YouTube’s chief counsel, Zahavah Levine, and it contained three attention getting messages: 1) that “YouTube and sites like it will cease to exist in their current form” if Viacom wins; 2) that Viacom “continuously and secretly uploaded its content to YouTube, even while publicly complaining about its presence there;” and 3) the lawsuit was motivated by sour grapes, in that before Google bought YouTube, Viacom had tried to buy it and negotiate a content-sharing agreement. Google and YouTube subsequently put up a dedicated website, which can be visited here, but it is not as user-friendly or as content rich as Viacom’s. However, the litigation was not mentioned again on YouTube’s official blog until this posting after Judge Stanton’s ruling.
Viacom has stated that it will appeal Judge Stanton's decision.