Tim Wu Looks At YouTube Litigation Potential

A discussion of “tolerable infringement:” Does YouTube Really Have Legal Problems?

When Google bought YouTube, the conventional wisdom—expressed in op-eds, newspaper articles, and scary editorial cartoons—was that they’d also bought themselves a whole heap of copyright trouble. The New York Times used the phrase “litigation-laden landmine.” Part-time copyright theorist Mark Cuban warned that YouTube would face the same copyright fate as Napster.

There’s only one problem with these theories: the copyright law itself. Under the copyright code, YouTube is in much better legal shape than anyone seems to want to accept. The site enjoys a strong legal “safe harbor,” a law largely respected by the television and film industries for the choices it gives them.

But the most interesting thing is where all this legal armor protecting YouTube—and most of the Web 2.0 (user-generated content) industry—comes from. It’s the product of the Bell lobby—Google’s bitter opponent in the ongoing Net Neutrality debates. So, while YouTube may be the creative child of Silicon Valley, it is also, as much, the offspring of Bell lobbying power.

[…] Stated otherwise, much of the copyrighted material on YouTube is in a legal category that is new to our age. It’s not “fair use,” the famous right to use works despite technical infringement, for reasons of public policy. Instead, it’s in the growing category of “tolerated use”—use that is technically illegal, but tolerated by the owner because he wants the publicity. If that sounds as weird as “don’t ask, don’t tell,” you’re getting the idea. The industry is deeply conflicted about mild forms of piracy—trapped somewhere between its pathological hatred of “pirates” and its lust for the buzz piracy can build.

[…] The upshot is, as YouTube goes mainstream, copyright’s etiquette rules are becoming clearer. Yes, these sites can make it easier to infringe copyright. But so long as that’s not the principle aim of your company, you have more breathing room today than you once did. And under the emerging regime, if you do cause infringement, you have to be nice about it and make determined efforts to stop it. Apple has learned that dance well, even as its iPods make swapping music all the more part of being American. And YouTube has, in turn, learned from Apple the early lessons of Napster: You can act out in cyberspace. Just don’t be a copyright pimp.