YouTube Criticizes Viacom for Worst Kind of Rent Seeking

The filings in the gargantuan lawsuit Viacom has leveled against YouTube are now public, according to Ars Technica and other sources. In their wake, Google has posted an incredible series of accusations on its YouTube blog, culminating in this:

For years, Viacom continuously and secretly uploaded its content to YouTube, even while publicly complaining about its presence there. It hired no fewer than 18 different marketing agencies to upload its content to the site. It deliberately “roughed up” the videos to make them look stolen or leaked. It opened YouTube accounts using phony email addresses. It even sent employees to Kinko’s to upload clips from computers that couldn’t be traced to Viacom. And in an effort to promote its own shows, as a matter of company policy Viacom routinely left up clips from shows that had been uploaded to YouTube by ordinary users. Executives as high up as the president of Comedy Central and the head of MTV Networks felt “very strongly” that clips from shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report should remain on YouTube.

In the rest of the post, Zahavah Levine, YouTube Chief Counsel argues, persuasively, that the DMCA takedown regime should be enough to satisfy any rights holders, no matter how large. He also contends that Viacom’s lawsuit is largely baseless as they did far more to make the job of tracking what material was and was not authorized impossible than anyone at YouTube or any of the users who may have posted unlicensed video clips.

What appalls me the most is that it is pretty clear that Viacom wants it both ways. I’ve heard enough anecdotes from a wide variety of sources to credit Levine’s claims that executives at Viacom were happy to extract value in terms of driving up viewership through viral videos. Apparently, they were not happy enough to profit in the same way as mere makers of cute cat and precocious baby videos. They want to extract rents, I have to imagine some pretty exorbitant rents, on top of this less fungible value.

The worst irony is that their rent seeking behavior will destroy the very underlying non-monetary value that makes any prospect of cold hard cash even possible. The implication is pretty clear that YouTube won’t back down, even if that leads to shuttering the site which would ultimately destroy all value to everyone, to Viacom and amateurs alike.

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