The $US1bn suit brought by entertainment company Viacom against Google, as the owner of YouTube, has sparked furious comment about YouTube users’ privacy being invaded, as well as more thoughtful analysis about whether an IP address can be considered “personal information”.
Viacom originally demanded Google hand over records of all YouTube sessions — in order, it says, to measure the degree of piracy of copyrighted material.
However, following court judgments, it has wound back its more outlandish demands — such as access to Google’s search-engine source code — and insists it has no desire to pursue individual users.
Perversely, Viacom says it also wants records of people watching amateur and public-domain videos to calculate the percentage of sessions that relate to its “protected works”. However, users remain suspicious that the identity tied to YouTube sessions will be accessed.
Viacom has argued that since Google can identify and filter adult content, it must also be able to perceive whether content is copyrighted. Hence the demand for source code.
The debate is curiously symmetrical, since copyright and privacy effectively spring from the same root: the concepts of ownership and “privilege”, in the literal sense of the word. Copyright is a law that says what others may or may not do with information that is also property.
On one hand, we have the “protected” content that Viacom commissions and then distributes. On the other, there is the user’s right to keep information about themselves and their entertainment private. Policing infringements of personal space can become infringement in its turn.
I should declare my own position here. I fully support the original intent of copyright, which was to assure the originator of a work undisturbed use of it for a finite period (originally, 21 years for works already in print, and 14 years for subsequently published works). Beyond that time, the work would enter the public domain and be free for others to adapt and build on to produce works of their own.
This was to encourage learning, as the original 1709 statute makes clear.
However, copyright protection is now operating for almost a century beyond the death of some authors. This not only compromises the ability of new artists and thinkers to build on previous works, it also means original artists don’t need to keep innovating — and nor do their marketing minders need to seek fresh material.
As a result, for example, we are condemned to endless television repeats and CDs full of “shovelware” — two or three new tracks accompanied by 10 we’ve already got. A work produced in the middle of the 20th century has well repaid its originator and should be free for others to use and adapt — not locked up by a company that did little or nothing to produce it.
What Viacom is demanding is (as a US judge put it) an “over-broad” right of search and seizure. Much data on our YouTube-watching habits is irrelevant to piracy.
I believe I have as much right to my privileged information as Viacom has to its. I’m willing to pay a reasonable fee for my one-time viewing of copyright works, but Viacom should have to pay me if it wants access to information concerning my personal browsing habits.
Shall we start the bidding?
(With acknowledgement to Douglas Hofstadter)