No Winners in the Battle for the Internet - A question of perspective
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Casual observers of the Napster and Kazaa cases might be forgiven for concluding that there's only one way all this can end. After all, the defense of non-liability didn't work before, so why should it now? However, there are a number of aspects of this case that distinguish it from its predecessors, suggesting that it could turn out to be a momentous event in the continuing struggle for supremacy between media corporations, who maintain a broadcast-based view of the World Wide Web, and the Internet companies who insist it is a communications medium where long-established media rules do not apply.
Not least among these is the target of Viacom's wrath. YouTube isn't a minor player, run by a couple of students from a suburban garage. It is owned by Google, the biggest of all Internet companies, and Google, it seems, is not prepared to back down. On May 23, 2008 the case took a significant step forward when the search giant's lawyers filed court papers in which they claim that the case represents a threat to "the way hundreds of millions of people legitimately exchange information."
This is a shorthand way of pointing out that consumers are no longer satisfied with the all-or-nothing choice offered by Viacom and its rival media corporations. People don't as a rule use YouTube to watch entire episodes of The Daily Show in horrible 320x240 quality. They watch clips of the bits that interest them - and that typically last just a few minutes -- and by allowing them to do so, YouTube services a demand that the mainstream entertainment industry steadfastly refuses to either acknowledge or engage with.
The papers served by Google's lawyers further state that the company "goes far beyond its legal obligations" in enforcing copyright on its sites. This could be interpreted as a veiled warning to Viacom that should they use their sledgehammer to drive YouTube's nut out of business, they might not find YouTube's as yet unknown replacements quite so accommodating. For Google are well aware that one consequence of previous cases where media corporations have gone head to head with file sharing service providers has been to drive such activities underground.
The music industry, for example, has failed to grasp a number of major opportunities over the last decade to rethink from the ground up its approach to online distribution. But instead of seeking to create partnerships with the likes of Napster and Kazaa, within which they could have actively participated in developing new models, they elected instead to go the legal route. The direct outcome has been technologies such as Bit Torrent that have proved almost impossible to police, thus depriving the industry of even the most tenuous control over its assets.
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