On March 13, 2007 Viacom filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against YouTube and Google claiming that,

YouTube has harnessed technology to willfully infringe copyrights on a huge scale by taking the value of creative content on a massive scale for YouTube’s benefit without payment or license.

YouTube recently suffered a blow in this case when U.S. District Judge, Louis Stanton, granted access to YouTube’s maintenance logs to Viacom. Viacom would like to use the data in order to prove that copyrighted videos are watched in greater volume than amateur clips. This would allow Viacom to show that copyright protected content draws in viewers and produces a financial benefit for Google. The logs contain information that is recorded to determine how often a clip is viewed. However, each entry additionally contains the viewer’s login ID and the IP address for the viewer’s computer.

YouTube argued that producing such information, roughly equivalent to the text of 12 million books, would be expensive and time consuming. However, the judge ruled that the legitimate need for the information outweighed the burden of producing the evidence.

Beyond the discovery concerns, is the issue of internet privacy. First, the release of the IP address allows the viewer’s computer to be identified. The judge determined that privacy concerns were not implicated, as the IP address alone could not specifically identify the viewer. However, privacy experts say the information that is needed to link a user to an IP address is not all that difficult to obtain. Second, viwers have the right to view materials anonymously. While login names may disguise a viewer, there are many cases where a viewer uses identifying information, such as a first or last name as an ID.

This decision has the potential to spur new requests for information about who is viewing controversial material on the interest. Professor Tim Wu says,

We realize that there’s this giant vault of information held by Google and YouTube and other companies, and [the ruling] makes very clear that any federal judge in the country can order access to it.”

It is unclear how Google will proceed in the case. While Viacom says that it won’t be using the information to go after individuals, Google would be wise to attempt to narrow the scope of the information it is supposed to hand over to protect not only its customers, but privacy on the Internet as a whole. Stay tuned.

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