Viacom v. YouTube: The Principle of Least Cost Avoidance

by on June 26, 2010 · 4 comments

I’m late to the party, but I wanted to say a few things about the District Court’s decision in the Viacom v. YouTube case this week and.  This will be a four-part post, covering:

1.  The holding

2.  The economic principle behind it

3.  The next steps in the case

4.  A review of the errors in legal analysis and procedure committed by reporters covering the case

I’ve written before (see “Two Smoking Guns and a Cold Case”, “Google v. Everyone” and “The Revolution will be Televised…on YouTube”) about this case, in which Viacom back in 2007 sued YouTube and Google (which owns YouTube) for $1 billion in damages, claiming massive copyright infringement of Viacom content posted by YouTube users.

There’s no question of the infringing activity or its scale.  The only question in the case is whether YouTube, as the provider of a platform for uploading and hosting video content, shares any of the liability of those among its users who uploaded Viacom content (including clips from Comedy Central and other television programming) without permission.

The more interesting questions raised by the ascent of new video sites aren’t addressed in the opinion.  Whether the users understood copyright law or not and whether their intent in uploading their favorite clips from Viacom programming was to promote Viacom rather than to harm it, were not considered.   Indeed, whether on balance Viacom was helped more than harmed by the illegal activity, and how either should be calculated under current copyright law, is not relevant to this decision, and are saved for another day and perhaps another case.

That’s because Google moved for summary judgment on the basis of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s “safe harbor” provisions, which immunize service providers from any kind of attributed or “secondary” liability for user behavior when certain conditions are met.  Most important, a service provider can dock safe from liability only if it can show that it :

– did not have “actual knowledge that the material…is infringing,” or is “not aware of facts or circumstances from which infringing activity is apparent” and

– upon obtaining such knowledge or awareness “acts expeditiously to remove…the material” and

– does not “receive a financial benefit directly attributable to the infringing activity, “in a case in which the service provider has the right ability to control such activity,” and

– upon notification of the claimed infringement, “responds expeditiously to remove…the material that is claimed to be infringing….”

Note that all four of these elements must be satisfied to benefit from the safe harbor

The question for Judge Stanton to decide on YouTube’s motion for summary judgment was whether YouTube met all the conditions, and he has ruled that they did so.

1.  The Slam-Dunk for Google

The decision largely comes down to an interpretation of what phrases like “the material” and “such activity” means in the above-quoted sections of the DMCA.

Indeed, the entire opinion can be boiled down to one sentence on page 15.  After reviewing the legislative history of the DMCA at length, Judge Stanton concludes that the “tenor” of the safe harbor provisions leads him to interpret infringing “material” and “activity” to mean “specific and identifiable infringements of particular individual items.”

General knowledge, which YouTube certainly had, that some of its users were (and still are) uploading content protected by copyright law without permission, is not enough to defeat the safe harbor and move the case to a determination of whether or not secondary liability can be shown.  “Mere knowledge of prevalence of such activity in general,” Judge Stanton writes, “is not enough.”

To defeat a safe harbor defense at the summary judgment stage, in other words, a content owner must show that the service provider knew or should have known about specific instances of infringement.  Such knowledge could come from a service provider hosting subsites with names like “Pirated Content” or other “red flags.”  But in most cases, as here, the service provider would not be held to know about specific instances of infringement until informed of them, most often from takedown notices sent by copyright holders themselves.

Whether ad revenue constitutes “direct financial benefit” was not tested, because, again, that provision only applies to “activity” the service provider has the right to control.  “Activity,” as Judge Stanton reads it, also refers to specific instances of illegal content distribution.

As Judge Stanton notes, YouTube users currently post 24 hours of video content every minute, making it difficult if not impossible, as a practical matter, for YouTube to have any idea which ones are not authorized by rights holders.  And when Viacom informed the site of some 100,000 potentially-infringing clips, YouTube removed nearly all of them within a day.  That is how the DMCA was intended to work, according to Judge Stanton, and indeed demonstrates that it is working just fine.

Viacom, of course, is free to pursue the individuals who posted its content without permission, but everyone should know by now that for many reasons that’s a losing strategy.

2.  The Least-Cost Avoider Principle

On balance, Judge Stanton is reading what is clearly an ambiguous statute with a great deal of common sense.  To what extent the drafters of the DMCA intended the safe harbor to apply to general vs. specific knowledge is certainly not clear from the plain language, nor, really, from the legislative history.  (Some members of the U.S. Supreme Court believe strongly that legislative history, in any case, is irrelevant in interpreting a statute, even if ambiguous.)

To bolster his interpretation that the safe harbor protects all but specific knowledge of infringement, interestingly, Judge Stanton points out that this case is similar to one decided a few months ago in the Second Circuit.  In that case, the court refused to apply vicarious liability for trademark infringement to eBay for customer listings of fake Tiffany’s products.

Though trademark and copyright law are quite different, the analogy is sensible.  In both cases, the question comes down to one of economic efficiency.  Which party, that is, is in the best position to police the rights being violated?

Here’s how the economic analysis might go.  Given the existence of new online marketplaces and video sharing services, and given the likelihood and ease with which individuals can use those services to violate information rights (intentionally or otherwise, for profit or not), the question for legislators and courts is how to minimize the damage to the information rights of some while still preserving the new value to information in general that such services create.

For there is also no doubt that the vast majority of eBay listings and YouTube clips are posted without infringing the rights of any third party, and that the value of such services, though perhaps not easily quantifiable, is immense.  EBay has created liquidity in markets that were too small and too disjointed to work efficiently offline.  YouTube has enabled a new generation of users with increasingly low-cost video production tools to distribute their creations, get valuable feedback and, increasingly, make money.

That these sites (and others, including Craigslist) are often Trojan Horses for illegal activities could lead legislators to ban them outright, but that clearly gets the cost-benefit equation wrong.  A ban would generate too much protection.

At the same time, throwing up one’s hands and saying that a certain class of rights-holders must accept all the costs of damage without any means of reducing or eliminating those costs, would be overly generous in the other direction.  Neither users, service providers, nor rights holders would have any incentives to police user behavior.  The basic goals of copyright and trademark might be seriously damaged as a result.

The goal of good legislation in situations like this—where overall benefit outweighs individual harm and where technology is changing the equation rapidly–is to produce rules that are most likely to get the balance right and do so with the least amount of expensive litigation.  The DMCA provisions described above are one attempt at creating such rules.

But those rules, given the uncertainties of emerging technologies and the changing behaviors of users, can’t possibly give judges the tools to decide every case with precision.  Such rules must be a least a little ambiguous (if not a lot).  Judges, as they have done for centuries, must apply other, objective interpretive tools to help decide individual cases even as the targets keep moving.

Judge Stanton’s interpretation of the safe harbor provisions follows, albeit implicitly, one of those neutral tools, the same one applied by the Second Circuit in the eBay case.  And that is the principle of the least-cost avoider.

This principle encourages judges to interpret the law, where possible, such that the burden of reducing harmful behavior falls to the party in the best position, economically, to avoid it.  That way, as parties in similar situations in the future evaluate the risk of liability, they will be more likely to choose a priori behaviors that not only reduce the risk of damages but also the cost of more litigation.

In the future, if Judge Stanton’s ruling stands, rights holders will be encouraged to police video sites more carefully.  Service providers such as YouTube will be encouraged to respond quickly to legitimate demands to remove infringing content.

Given the fact that activities harmful to rights holders are certain to occur, in other words, the least cost avoider principles says that a judge should rule in a way that puts the burden of minimizing the damage on the party who can most efficiently avoid it.  In this case, the choice would be between YouTube (preview all content before posting and ensure legal rights have been cleared), Viacom (monitor sites carefully and quickly demand takedown of infringing content) or the users themselves (don’t post unauthorized content without expecting to pay damages or possible criminal sanctions).

Here, the right answer economically is Viacom, the rights holder who is directly harmed by the infringing behavior.

That may seem unfair from a moral standpoint.  For, after all, Viacom is the direct victim of the users’ clearly unlawful behavior and the failure of YouTube, the enabler of the users, to stop it.  Why should the victim be held responsible for making sure they are not caused further damage in the future?

But there’s a certain economic logic to that decision, though one difficult to quantify (Judge Stanton made no effort to do so; indeed he did not invoke the least cost avoider principle explicitly.)  The grant of a copyright or a trademark is the grant of a monopoly on a certain class of information, a grant that itself comes with inherent economic inefficiencies in the service of encouraging overall social value–encouraging investment in creative works.

Part of the cost of having such a valuable monopoly is the cost of policing it, even in new media and new services that the rights holder may not have any particular interest in using itself.

By interpreting the DMCA as protecting service providers from mere general knowledge of infringing behavior, Judge Stanton has signaled that Viacom can police YouTube more efficiently than YouTube can.  Why?  For one thing, Viacom has the stronger incentive to ensure unauthorized content stays off the site.  It alone also has the knowledge both of what content it has rights to and when that content appears without authorization.  (Several examples arose in the course of discovery of content Viacom ordered YouTube to remove that, it turned out, had been posted by Viacom or its agents masquerading as users in order to build buzz.)

The cost of monitoring and stopping unauthorized posting is not negligible, of course.  But YouTube, eBay and other service providers increasingly provide tools to make the process easier, faster, and cheaper for rights holders.  They may or may not be obligated to do so as a matter of law; for now, their decision to do so represents an organic and efficient form of extra-legal rulemaking that Judge Stanton is eager to encourage.

No matter what, someone has to bear the bulk of the cost of monitoring and reporting violations.  Viacom can do it cheaper, and can more easily build that cost into the price it charges for authorized copies of its content.

And where it cannot easily issue takedown orders to large, highly-visible service providers like YouTube, it retains the option, admittedly very expensive, to sue the individuals who actually infringed.  It can also try to invoke the criminal aspect of copyright law, and get the FBI (that is, the taxpayer) to absorb the cost.

To rule the other way–to deny YouTube its safe harbor–would encourage service providers to overspend on deterrence of infringing behavior.  In response, perhaps YouTube and other sites would require, before posting videos, that users provide legally-binding and notarized documentation that the user either owns the video or has a license to post it.  Obtaining such agreements, not to mention evaluating them for accuracy, would effectively mean the end of video sites.  Denying the safe harbor based on general knowledge, to put it another way, would effectively interpret the DMCA as a ban on video sites.

That would be cheaper for Viacom, of course, but would lead to overall social loss.  Right and wrong, innocence and guilt, are largely excluded from this kind of analysis, though certainly not from the rhetoric of the parties.  And remember that actual knowledge or general awareness of specific acts of infringement would, according to Judge Stanton’s rule, defeat the safe harbor.  In that case, to return to the economic terminology, the cost of damages—or, if you prefer, assigning some of the blame—would shift back on YouTube.

3.  What’s Next?

Did Judge Stanton get it right as a matter of information economics?  It appears that the answer is yes.  But did he get it right as a matter of law—in this case, of the DMCA?

That remains to be seen.

Whether one likes the results or not, as I’ve written before, summary judgment rulings by district courts are never the last word in complex litigation between large, well-funded parties.  That is especially so here, where the lower court’s interpretation of a federal law is largely untested in the circuit and indeed, as here, in any circuit.

Judge Stanton cites as authority for his view of the DMCA a number of other lower court cases, many of them in the Ninth Circuit.  But as a matter of federal appellate law, Ninth Circuit cases are not binding precedent on the Second Circuit, where Judge Stanton sits.  And other district (that is, lower) court opinions cannot be cited by the parties as precedent even within a circuit.  They are merely advisory.  (A Ninth Circuit case involving Veoh is currently on appeal; the service provider won on a “safe harbor” argument similar to Google’s in the lower court.)

So this case will certainly head for appeal to the Second Circuit, and perhaps from there to the U.S. Supreme Court.  But a Supreme Court review of the case is far from certain.  Appeals to the circuit court are the right of the losing party.  A petition to the Supreme Court, on the other hand, is accepted at the Court’s discretion, and the Court turns down the vast majority of cases that it is asked to hear, often without regard to the economic importance or newsworthiness of the case.  (The Court refused to hear an appeal in the Microsoft antitrust case, for example, because the lower courts largely applied existing antitrust precedents.)

A circuit court reviewing summary judgment will make a fresh inquiry into the law, accepting the facts alleged by Viacom (the losing party below) as if they were all proven.  If the Second Circuit follows Judge Stanton’s analogy to the eBay case, Google is likely to prevail.

If the appellate court rejects Judge Stanton’s view of specificity, the case will return to the lower court and move on, perhaps to more summary judgment attempts by both parties and, failing that, a trial.  More likely, at that point, the parties will reach a settlement, or an overall licensing agreement, which may have been the point of bringing this litigation in the first place.  (A win for Viacom, as in most patent cases, would have given the company better negotiating leverage.)

4.  Getting it Right or Wrong in the Press

That brief review of federal appellate practice is entirely standard—it has nothing to do with the facts of this case, the parties, the importance of the decision, or the federal law in question.

Which makes it all the more surprising when journalists who regularly cover the legal news of particular companies continually get it wrong when describing what has happened and/or what happens next.

Last and perhaps least, here are a few examples from some of the best-read sources:

The New York Times – Miguel Helft, who covers Google on a regular basis, commits some legal hyperbole in saying that Judge Stanton “threw out” Viacom’s case, and that “the ruling” (that is, this opinion) could have “major implications for …scores of Internet sites.”  The appellate court decision will be the important one, but technically it will apply only to cases brought in the Second Circuit.  The lower court’s decision, even if upheld, will have no implications for future litigation.  Helft also quotes from counsel at both Viacom and Google which are filled with legal errors, though perhaps understandably so.

The Wall Street Journal –Sam Schechner and Jessica E. Vasellaro make no mistakes in their report of the decision.  They correctly explain what summary judgment means, and summarize the ruling without distorting it.  Full marks.

The Washington Post – Cecilia Kang, who covers technology policy for the Post, incorrectly characterizes Judge Stanton’s ruling as a “dismissal” of Viacom’s lawsuit.  A dismissal, as opposed to the granting of a motion for summary judgment, generally happens earlier in litigation, and signals a much weaker case, often one for which the court finds it has no jurisdiction or which, even if all the alleged facts are true, doesn’t amount to behavior for which a legal remedy exists.  Kang repeats the companies’ statements, but also adds a helpful quote from Public Knowledge’s Sherwin Siy about the balance of avoiding harms.

The National Journal – At the website of this legal news publication, Juliana Gruenwald commits no fouls in this short piece, with an even better quote from PK’s Siy.

CNET – Tech news site CNET’s media reporter Greg Sandoval suggests that “While the case could continue to drag on in the appeals process, the summary judgment handed down in the Southern District of New York is a major victory for Google . . . .”  This is odd wording, as the case will certainly “drag on” to an appeal to the Second Circuit.  (A decision by the Second Circuit is perhaps a year or more away.)  Again, a district court decision, no matter how strongly worded, does not constitute a “major victory” for the prevailing party.

Sandoval (who, it must be said, posted his story quite quickly), also exaggerates the sweep of Google’s argument and the judge’s holding.  He writes, “Google held that the DMCA’s safe harbor provision protected it and other Internet service providers from being held responsible for copyright infringements committed by users.  The judge agreed.”  But Google argued only that it (not other providers) was protected, and protected only from user infringements it didn’t know about specifically.  That is the argument with which Judge Stanton agreed

Perhaps these are minor infractions.  You be the judge.

Previous post:

Next post: