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Social networking sites & copyright

Posted by Michael Bloch in web development (Saturday September 16, 2006 )

I’ve often pondered the fact that YouTube and similar social networking sites appear to have escaped the wrath of copyright related lawsuits. I just put it down to down safe harbor provisions set out for ISPs and similar services in the DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act) which offered them protection.

It looks like they aren’t totally safe after all.

Rumors starting flying around the web a couple of days ago that Universal Music Group was preparing to launch a copyright infringement lawsuit against YouTube, the world’s most popular video sharing site. There’s also talk of MySpace winding up in Universal’s firing line.

The many reports I’ve read have mentioned Universal stating royalties in the “tens of millions of dollars” are owed. This has really come at a bad time for YouTube, especially since there’s been talk of their IPO being launched soon. Perhaps Universal are playing a very smart hand, much like what’s commonly done by companies engaged in patent trolling.

To this point, YouTube is reported to have honored *all* requests from legitimate copyright holders for the removal of material that has been posted without authorization. YouTube also has a process published on their site for DMCA infringement complaints. Having these processes in place are a smart idea, but it still doesn’t prevent copyright owners from at least trying to sue.

It’s really wise to get up to speed on these sorts of issues if you run a site where users may store and display their own content and implement the processes required to give you some protection. You can read the full text of the DMCA here.

Of particular interest is the text relating to “Ԥ 512. Limitations on liability relating to material online”. This outlines the safe harbor provisions for ISPs. An FAQ on the interpretation of the section can be read on Chilling Effects; a clearinghouse for intellectual property law information relating to online activities.

I’m making special mention of this situation with YouTube due to the proliferation of social networking and video sharing sites launched in recent times. If you’re considering launching or buying such a site, you really need to give these issues careful consideration and perhaps consult with a copyright lawyer.

Also ensure in your terms of service you have clauses relating to copyrighted material being posted by users. It really needs to be clear to them that it’s no-go and users infringing on copyrights will have their accounts terminated. Even if users take no notice of it, at least it’s in place – especially if the lawyers come a-knockin’.

It’s challenging enough patrolling copyright infringements in forums, let alone social networking sites where there may be thousands of users and unauthorized reproductions of copyrighted content is easily posted and shared.

Universal may well start a lawsuit avalanche should they proceed, but I believe that much of the success of these kinds of suits will down to intention, i.e.

– what is the focus of the site?

– is it generally known that the site contains a large amount of material that may be copyrighted?

– are the owners equally aware?

– what type of controls and monitoring are in place to minimize the incidence of copyrighted material being posted?

– does the way the service function allow for this content to be easily stored, viewed and promoted amongst the membership and externally?

Not many of us have the type of backing needed to deal with a lawsuit from major media companies. Remember, it’s not a matter of whether you can win or lose a suit, but the headaches the suit will cause you along the way may well spell the death of your business. Sometimes it’s best to play it safe and sleep better at nights.

In case you’re thinking that your site may not register on the radar of big companies chasing copyright infringement, think again. I had an email (albeit very polite) from the soccer organization FIFA a couple of months ago stating that someone had posted FIFA copyrighted materials in a single post in my forums and they wanted it removed. Needless to say, I pulled it pretty quick :).


Beware the patent trolls


1 comment for Social networking sites & copyright
  1. Warner Music Group has agreed to distribute and license its copyrighted songs and other material through YouTube:

    Comment by Michael Bloch — September 19, 2006 @ 4:46 am

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