Video face-off

March 18, 2007

What would YouTube be without Jon Stewart, South Park, SpongeBob SquarePants, The Colbert Report and dozens of other commercial video clips? Oh, just the hottest collection of America's home videos, self-made movies, no-name docudramas, videodiaries, bloopers, candidate cameos and gotcha outtakes.

This video bulletin board is as eccentric, wacky, evocative, idiosyncratic and freewheeling as its users. And yet entertainment giant Viacom has charged that snippets of its stars, comics and cartoon characters that appear on YouTube are copyright infringement. It has sued Google, owner of the video site, for $1 billion. Viacom's puffed-up complaint is a heavy-handed money grab.

A ruling in Viacom's favor could restrict what's placed on the Internet and compromise the evolution of Internet-related businesses. The law governing this area needs to be revisited. Here's why:

At the heart of Viacom's complaint is its desire to be compensated for YouTube's use of its copyrighted material. That's understandable. But Google says it has been complying with the law. It has taken down the Viacom material, once notified by the media giant. And that's what the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 requires of it.

But YouTube didn't exist when the Digital Millennium law was passed. Today, even as Google takes down Viacom material, any number of YouTube contributors could be uploading their favorite Daily Show clips at the same time.

Viacom deserves to be compensated for its material; it has reached deals with other outfits, including one of YouTube's rivals. But let's face it: The outtakes of Jon Stewart aren't going to deter people from watching his show. To the contrary, it's good advertising.

As the Internet changes and expands and business opportunities emerge, the law should be malleable enough to protect the old and encourage the new.

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