Friday, July 11, 2008

Web 2.0 fragility: Viacom vs YouTube

Viacom's lawsuit against YouTube is a demonstration of Web 2.0 issues described briefly in my Web 2.0 for Dummies posts.It also demonstrates Web 2.0 fragility.

The main issues behind the lawsuit are copyrights and trust.

According to Viacom, YouTube violated its copyrights by presenting videos including Viacom's copyrighted material. YouTube answer was that they do not present intentionally copyrighted videos or part of videos. The written guidelines in their Web site explain clearly that community members should not place copyrighted material in that Website. The company also provides a menu item (flag) for use by community members for alerting it about copyrights violations.

The lawsuit reminds me another copyrights lawsuit I was involved in as an expert witness. Two of the founders of an unsuccessful Israeli startup left the company and establishes another startup. The second startup's product was a real success story.

The other co-founders of the first startup company applied to court claiming that the new product is based on the first startup's copyrighted material.

When one of the founders of the second startup asked for my opinion as an expert, he sweared that there is no even the slightest correlation between the first startup's products and the new startup's product. According to him the lawsuit was a blackmail attempt based on the possible damage to the reputation and image of the new startup just because of a lawsuit. His former colleagues thought that he will be willing to pay for avoiding possible higher loses due to the lawsuit effects.

I talked to his lawyer and told him that I will get the data and analyze it to reach my conclusions, and I need his help only in one aspect: Whatever will my opinion be, I should use juridical terms and not IT terms to make sure that the judge will understand my opinion. (SOA concept is similar: build a Business Architecture based on Business terms and entities and use it for interactions with Business people instead of using technical IT terms).

I analyzed it using Top-Down methodology and juridical terms.


The top of the hierarchy could be illustrated as follows:

  • Was the source code of the new product copied entirely from source code of the first startup products? The answer was no. They used a different programming language.
  • Does the source code include significant parts reproduced from source code of the first startup products? The answer was no. They used a different programming language.
  • Is there similar functionality rewritten using another programming language? No
  • Are there any similar functional components or partial functionality? No
  • Is there any conceptual overlap between the products? No

The lawyer showed my expert opinion to the prosecutors' lawyer and the case was dismissed.


Why is the cited copyright lawsuit relevant to Viacom vs. YouTube?

In a way Viacom's attitude is similar to the founders of the first startup company: It is not really about copyrights: it is about riding on another company's success and getting business benefits.

Remember, Viacom is not the only media giant and it is the only one which applied to court. Google was ready to pay for unintentional copyrights violations by YouTube community members and agreement for payment was signed with other media giants.

Viacom's request to examine Google's Search code for proving that Google encourages copyright infringement is the best example.

Any one could easily conclude that it is impractical or almost impossible to augment a search engine so it will check copyrights violations in a large number of videos posted by community members.

I am quiet sure that even Viacom managers do not think that Google changed its search engine for supporting copyrights infringements.

If that request would have been sustained by the judge (fortunately it was dismissed), Google would prefer to shutdown YouTube instead of revealing its business patents and secrets. In that case, the gap which would have been formed by YouTube's shutdown would have been filled by new communities sharing and posting videos. Some of those companies would probably violate copyrights more than YouTube. Unfortunately, it will be more difficult or unrealistic to prosecute these companies (Think of a small company located in a developing country).


Web 2.0 in the light of Viacom vs. YouTube

  • Not all Web 2.0 Community participants could be trusted

Web 2.0 model is based on trust. While most of community members are trustworthy some are not.

This point was discussed in previous posts Vikipedia: The Good the Bad and the Ugly and Web 2.0 for Dummies – Part 4: What is Web 2.0?

  • It is impossible to avoid of copyrights infringement

A Web 2.0 community should supply reasonable means for minimizing copyrights infringement, mainly by community members' awareness and corrective actions. However, few untrusted community members will intentionally violate copyrights while other members will occasionally violate it unintentionally.

  • Web 2.0 projects are fragile

Viacom's claims that YouTube will turn over all removed videos and video related logging data were sustained. Execution of these actions could harm users Privacy (in particular by revealing the logging information) and requires a lot of work behalf of YouTube to produce those byproducts.

The glass is half empty and half full. The outcomes of future lawsuits against Web 2.0 vendors could be even worse than the verdict of Viacom vs. YouTube.

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