Ulanoff: Viacom's Making a Mistake With Google-YouTube Lawsuit

Viacom executives have climbed atop their high horses and aimed a $1 billion litigious projectile at the heads of Google and YouTube.

The media conglomerate claims that the Google-owned YouTube (one of the world's most popular Web sites) is infringing on the company's content by allowing regulars Joes and Josephines to "steal" and post countless hours of their precious content.

What a bunch of idiots.

• Click here to find out why Jim Louderback thinks Lance Ulanoff is totally wrong, and how Viacom's lawsuit could end up destroying YouTube and possibly Google as well.

Philippe Dauman

He's promised, according to The Wall Street Journal, to add $500 million to Viacom's digital revenues. Apparently, part of this plan includes pilfering it from Google's deep pockets.

It's no secret that there are thousands of clips from television shows from around the world (many, as far as I can tell, from Japan) on YouTube.

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The lion's share of these are not sanctioned by the content owners, and YouTube works hard to remove them as soon as it notices, or one of the broadcast or cable networks alerts it.

Still, with 65,000 or more videos available every day, it's almost impossible for YouTube execs to keep tabs on all them and know when copyrighted content has been added to the mix.

It's not just that the lawsuit — which Viacom will never win, by the way — is stupid: It has the potential to damage the burgeoning online video business.

A billion dollars is a scary number, and while lawsuits usually create a chilling effect, $1 billion could scare the heck out of people and put the industry into a deep freeze.

My guess is that the wide world of YouTube competitors (and there are many) will be holding its collective breath until the two sides settle.

At issue here is whether or not YouTube is still protected by the nine-year-old Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which offers some protection to sites that do not necessarily control the content their customers are posting and, more importantly, do not know what's being added to their sites.

Viacom says YouTube knows. I say Viacom is shooting itself in the foot.

Viacom Is Burning Bridges

Last fall, CBS reported that a partnership with YouTube, in which the two companies worked together to post clips from popular shows such as "The Late Show With Dave Letterman" and "The Late, Late Show With Craig Ferguson" had, according to a press release, boosted ratings:

"Ratings for the network's late-night programs, in particular, have shown notable increases. CBS's Late Show with David Letterman has added 200,000 (+5 percent) new viewers while The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson is up 100,000 viewers (+7 percent) since the YouTube postings started."

As an avowed "iVideot," I can attest to this statement.

I visit YouTube every day, and last year I stumbled upon Ferguson's show segments. I'd never watch "The Late, Late Show," but the clips were so funny, so inspired, that I began TiVo-ing his show (no way am I staying up that late).

Based on CBS's own information, I'm clearly not alone. CBS also noted how YouTube native community interaction was allowing the network to "learn about its audience as never before."

Then-CBS president Quincy Smith ended with a beaut: "We believe this inflection point is the precursor to many exciting developments as we continue to build bridges rather than construct walls."

CBS and Viacom were once one and the same, but that was nearly two years ago.

Now, though the two companies may look similar on the outside, they are decidedly different in their approaches to YouTube and digital rights.

Unlike CBS and other networks, Viacom (owner of MTV, Comedy Central, TV Land, Spike TV and myriad other properties), is now burning bridges and building a billion-dollar digital wall around itself.

Sounds familiar, huh?

The music and movie industries have both tried sticking their heads in the sand, attempting to wish away the digital world.

The music industry has, more or less, finally given in, but it's waited so long that it caused itself irreparable harm.

The movie industy is trying to be more proactive, but it, too, is hampering its own progress by doing less-than-stellar work with IPTV services and the major movie-download sites.

From my vantage point, television neworks are not all on the same page.

Some want to work with Google and YouTube. Others express an interest in going it alone and building their own viral video networks (not really a great idea). And some parent companies, such as Viacom, are taking the "my way or the highway" approach.

That last strategy would be comical if it weren't so sad.

If YouTube fades or finds a way to achieve total control over posting copyrighted clips, other services will spring up to post non-sanctioned content. There's no stopping this freight train.

Viacom should be embracing YouTube and worrying less about money up front and more about how it can work with the millions of people who are currently viewing Viacom content on YouTube.

It's a huge opportunity and one that, if Philippe Dauman gets his way, could soon be lost forever.

Dauman may ultimately succeed in getting every single Jon Stewart clip eradicated from thousands of YouTube pages. If he wins (which I doubt), he could even scare off consumers from posting their own clips.

This will be a great triumph for Viacom and Dauman — one they can enjoy as they sit in their ivory tower and watch the digital world pass them by.

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