YouTube vs. Viacom, a look back on the battle and what it means for advertising and PR agencies

The legal battle between YouTube and Viacom raised technical PR issues.While it may not be current news, the YouTube vs. Viacom battle deserves explaining, particularly its effect on the PR industry.

The battle in brief: Viacom sued YouTube for $1 billion +, claiming that over 160,000 copyrighted videos were illegally posted on YouTube, totalling over 1.5 billion views. This part is true.

However Viacom are also culprits here, as there are documented cases of Viacom itself uploading clips of copyrighted content, like TV shows, in an attempt to incriminate YouTube. They would leave videos that were technically breaking copyright laws on the site, as an effort to promote their own shows, too. Viacom-owned site Spike.com also routinely monetises videos from independent content-creators, by placing 30 second adverts at the start without permission. Clearly there are a few views to take on this story.

There are a few views to take on the payment Viacom asked for as well. Many sources claim that the $1b mark was actually too low, as typically these companies seek the maximum of $150,000 per infringement. Others say that a figure closer to £2 per 1000 views on each video that has been illegally uploaded is closer to the mark, and indeed it is more than any of the users who uploaded the footage in the first place are getting. Typically though, Viacom was unwilling to accept the second offer, instead continuing to ask for the $1b, and as a term of the lawsuit for YouTube to manually check each and every one of the videos being uploaded, a move that would effectively destroy the site as no workforce would ever keep up with the sheer amount of content posted every day.

In the end YouTube won the case. On June 23, 2010, the judge ruled that Google (owner of YouTube) was protected by the Digital Millennium Copyright act; however the handling of the case still poses some interesting questions. One has to wonder if Viacom should have instigated the lawsuit in the first place bearing in mind their previous actions.

All in all, it was a case of bad PR for Viacom, or rather a case of very good PR for Google. First, the actions that Viacom wanted to take outraged many of the users on YouTube, causing a backlash of support for the site and making it increasingly difficult for Viacom to build a case for itself. With no real attempts at a public appeal by Viacom to turn the odds in their favour, the case became increasingly difficult.

Next, the details of Viacom’s own incriminating uploads going public was a major blow to the lawsuit, as very few courts side with a perceived hypocrite. It also increased public support for YouTube, as it was felt that YouTube had been purposefully wronged by Viacom.

This tone of hypocrisy was heightened by the fact that Viacom had tried to buy YouTube early on in the site’s life. This made the lawsuit seem like a vine of sour grapes on Viacom’s part, an attempt to close down the site simply because Viacom couldn’t own it.

Finally, there was a lot in favour of YouTube even before the lawsuit was filed. Along with a dedicated user-base and income, YouTube has really moved the video market forward at a greater rate than any other company has managed. Before YouTube, viewing or posting online videos was ridiculously difficult, and its simple interface and usability contributed to it being a hit with users. Was this really the main reason Viacom sued in the first place? I wonder if they felt they were losing control over the medium because it was moving so fast? For an anti-innovation company, as Viacom has been accused of being, that wouldn’t be acceptable.

To conclude then, although there were certainly grounds for Viacom to sue, and there was even a possibility of them winning this battle, their poor situation management sealed their fate. With some better PR they could have won, or at least walked away with a better deal. Then again, had they won, the internet would have seen the possible loss of one of its greatest resources.

Thanks for reading. I’m off to watch one of the 160,000 videos Viacom felt were subject to their copyright. I might watch them on YouTube. I might not.

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Richard Stone

Stone Junction is a cool technical PR agency based in Stafford. We work for all sorts of businesses, with a particular focus on technology, technical and engineering companies. We like being sent cake and biscuits by clients, journalists and prospects.

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