Who's Watching What You're Watching?

From - http://www.vistanews.com/

According to the Broadband Report, as of last March 57% of U.S. households had broadband Internet. These high speed connections make it possible to enjoy multi-media applications, something that doesn't work well - if at all - over slow dialup connections. And Internet users are taking advantage of that capability. By March 2008, more than 78 million videos had been uploaded to YouTube, the popular video sharing web site that was created in 2005 by three former employees of PayPal and was acquired by Google a year later. This means more than 150,000 videos are uploaded every day. http://www.vistanews.com/IB5SB2/080710-YouTube-Statistics

Many of these are relatively short, homemade video clips that people take of themselves, their kids, their pets or whatever else they find interesting. The proliferation of cell phone cameras that can record short videos has made it very easy for just about anyone to become a "roving reporter." Your YouTube account includes a feature that lets you create a mobile profile on the site and then get a special email address to which you can send your videos as MMS messages from your cell phone. You just enter your mobile phone number and provider name. You can also watch videos on your browser-equipped cell phone. Just go to http://m.youtube.com.

In a society where everyone longs for his or her fifteen minutes of fame, YouTube gives us what we want. Aspiring stand-up comedians can get an instant audience, or you can share the video of your wedding with thousands of strangers around the world. Your creative efforts don't exist in a vacuum, either. Those who view the videos can assign ratings to them so you know exactly where you stand (or don't).

Not all the videos that are uploaded to YouTube are originals, though. Looking for that Macbook Air commercial with the "New Soul" song? A quick search on YouTube will bring it up for you in all its glory. Or you might prefer this parody: http://www.vistanews.com/IB5SB2/080710-Parody

Or you can click on the News and Politics category for news clips of everything from President Bush's last State of the Union address to Associated Press footage of the recent Colombia hostage rescue.

You might be wondering whether some of these videos might be copyrighted, and in fact many of them are, and are posted on YouTube without the permission of the copyright owner. And that brings us to our latest controversy. Although some companies don't seem to mind having their material reposted to YouTube - and may even encourage it, for the publicity - others aren't so happy.
In 2007, Viacom (the media conglomerate that owns MTV, Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks movie studio, among others) invoked the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) against YouTube, demanding that they take down more than 100,000 videos that Viacom claimed had been posted in violation of copyright laws. Viacom also filed a $1 billion lawsuit against Google/YouTube.
As part of that lawsuit, Viacom asked for the log-in names and IP addresses of YouTube users and records of who watched what videos. And last week, U.S. District Court judge Louis Stanton granted that request, ordering YouTube to turn over their database logs to Viacom. Despite many protests from organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the judge dismissed concerns about user privacy. http://www.vistanews.com/IB5SB2/080710-YouTube-User-History

Viacom's allegations of copyright infringement seem particularly egregious in light of the accusation from one film maker that Viacom tried to sue him for posting his own video on YouTube, which Viacom had used on their TV commercial without his permission. You can read his blog post about that here: http://www.vistanews.com/IB5SB2/080710-Viacom-Copyright

The lawsuit against YouTube is important because it could set a precedent regarding the responsibility of a web site for content that's posted by others, as well as defining what is and isn't "fair use" when it comes to capturing snippets of a TV program or other copyrighted video. The DMCA includes a "safe harbor" provision that exempts hosting companies from liability for copyright infringement - if the hosting company removes the material when notified that it's in violation of the copyright laws. YouTube contends that they comply with this requirement and also have other measures, such as the 10 minute limit on videos, that discourage copyright infringement.

If Viacom wins this one, it could open up a much bigger can of worms. A new interpretation of the DMCA safe harbor provision could affect more than just video hosting sites. Web sites that host discussion forums might be held liable for what users post there; this would probably cause many of the online forums to simply disappear.

But regardless of the outcome of the suit, YouTube's users have already lost. The twelve terabytes of log data that Google must now turn over to Viacom contains viewers' log-in IDs and IP addresses, the time each viewer began watching and the video that he watched. The judge seems to think this information can't be used to identify individual users, but how many people do you know who use their names or some variation thereof as their log-in names on web sites like YouTube? And even if you don't, an IP address can be tracked back through the ISP to the user account to which it was assigned at a particular time unless that user goes to the effort of using anonymizer services, something that the vast majority of casual users don't do.

There has been no indication at this time that Viacom or anyone else intends to go after the users who watched copyrighted video clips, but who knows? Who would have thought the RIAA would sue grandmothers and 9 year old kids for illegal sharing of music? And even if that doesn't happen, does it make you a little nervous that someone is going over the records of what you watched and when?

Tell us what you think. Does Viacom, as a copyright owner, have the right to demand not only that YouTube take down the videos that belong to them (a reasonable request) but also that YouTube provide them with information about the viewers who watched those videos? Should YouTube or any other web site hosting content that's uploaded by its visitors bear the responsibility for that content if it violates laws? Would it bother you to have the records of your viewing habits made part of a court proceeding, or do you subscribe to the "if you aren't doing anything wrong, you don't have anything to worry about" philosophy? Should video sharing sites such as YouTube be restricted to homemade videos only? Or should the "fair use" provisions of the copyright law allow you to post small portions of a TV show, news program, etc.?