Viacom vs. Google: As the Tube turns

In the ultimate Silicon Valley soap opera, mud flies as court documents reveal the details of Viacom's copyright infringement suit against YouTube

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Stop me if you've heard this plot line before: The aging sugardaddy who gets spurned and seeks revenge. The grasping ingenue who will do anything (or anyone) to gain wealth and power. The dashing young hero who swoops in to save the ingenue from the decrepit suitor, thus becoming his enemy.

Sounds like an episode of "One Life to Live," doesn't it? Only in this case, the soup soap opera players are Viacom, YouTube, and Google.

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It's surely the most entertaining drama to hit Silicon Valley in an age, thanks to a federal court's decision yesterday to unseal documents from Viacom's $1 billion suit against Google.

The blogosphere is buzzing over some of the revelations in the suit and the public catfight that's erupted between the warring parties as a result.

The major news: It appears Viacom had its eye on YouTube as an acquisition target for some time before all the drama hit. According to documents filed by Google, 187-year-old Viacom honcho Sumner Redstone offered to buy YouTube before Google did. Weirder still, at one point Viacom execs wanted Google to go in on the purchase. Talk about kinky.

After YouTube spurned Viacom's offers and hooked up with Google, Redstone decided that YouTube is just a copyright slattern, a Website of easy virtue -- thus, Viacom's $1 billion suit against Google. Per Viacom's official statement yesterday:

YouTube was intentionally built on infringement and there are countless internal YouTube communications demonstrating that YouTube's founders and its employees intended to profit from that infringement. By their own admission, the site contained "truckloads" of infringing content and founder Steve Chen explained that YouTube needed to "steal" videos because those videos make "our traffic soar."

Google bought YouTube because it was a haven of infringement. Google knew that YouTube's popularity depended on infringing materials with several senior Google executives warning that YouTube was a "rogue enabler of content theft." Instead of complying with the law, Google willfully and knowingly chose to continue YouTube's illegal practices.

In other words, Viacom is glad it didn't get too intimate with the site, because YouTube would infringe with anybody. (Hey, there's a reason they call it viral video.)

Not so fast, cried Google. It was actually Viacom and its proxies who uploaded those unauthorized videos to YouTube, as well as many authorized ones, says the G-force. According to Zahavah Levine, YouTube chief counsel:

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.

Viacom's efforts to disguise its promotional use of YouTube worked so well that even its own employees could not keep track of everything it was posting or leaving up on the site. As a result, on countless occasions Viacom demanded the removal of clips that it had uploaded to YouTube, only to return later to sheepishly ask for their reinstatement. In fact, some of the very clips that Viacom is suing us over were actually uploaded by Viacom itself.

Better than mailing YouTube dead rats and leaving flaming bags of dog poo on the doorstep, I suppose.

But wait, it gets better. Viacom brandished emails from YouTube that seem to indicate the young Tubers knew full well that videos on their site were illegal but left them up because they were driving traffic. To quote lesser-known YouTube co-founder and wannabe-rapper Jawed Karim:

It's all 'bout da videos, yo. We'll be an excellent acquisition target once we're huge.

Viacom calls these emails undisputed facts. Google calls them undisputed fiction, claming the media giant is misconstruing "isolated lines from a handful of emails."

I call the whole thing great entertainment. It's like watching two multi-billion-dollar giants mud wrestle. Now it's time for both parties to grow up and reach a settlement before anybody else gets hurt.

Are you finding the Google-Viacom drama as entertaining as I am? Who's wrong and who's right? Post your thoughts below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "Viacom vs. Google: As the Tube turns," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog.

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