The widespread legal challenges that some experts have long predicted would dog Google's YouTube appear to have arrived.
On Friday, the Football Association Premier League, England's most prestigious soccer organization, filed suit in New York against the massively popular video-sharing site, accusing it of enabling users to violate copyright law. On the same day, in California, NBC Universal and Viacom filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of journalist Bob Tur, who in a lawsuit filed last summer accused YouTube of infringing on his copyrighted material by posting without his permission video he shot during the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
And reports out of Thailand indicate that the government there is considering suing YouTube for displaying a video that it claims is offensive to the nation's monarch.
But not even an angry king poses as much of a threat to YouTube as repeated accusations that the Web's largest video site enables the theft of intellectual property, analysts say.
As of March, only Tur and media conglomerate Viacom had filed copyright infringement claims against the video powerhouse, which Google acquired last October for $1.65 billion. Now, YouTube is facing a third complaint (from the British soccer league), and NBC Universal--which is among those that have inked content-sharing agreements with YouTube--is making its own noise in the background.
Still, while the number of lawsuits against YouTube is rising, it hasn't yet been firmly established whether the video-sharing site is liable when users post pirated videos. The San Bruno, Calif.-based company, which has more than 50 million users worldwide, argues that it's protected from culpability under the Safe Harbor provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).
"These suits simply misunderstand the (DMCA), which balances the rights of copyright holders against the need to protect Internet communications," Kent Walker, Google's general counsel, said in an e-mail Sunday. "As a result, they threaten the way people legitimately exchange information."
But one thing is certain: YouTube's copyright troubles don't appear to be going away anytime soon.
"Everybody became so enamored of YouTube very quickly," said Josh Martin, an analyst with the Yankee Group. "Very few people looked at the copyright issue from a business perspective."
Martin wrote a report last June that predicted YouTube could become mired in the same legal morass that hobbled music file-sharing service Napster in the late '90s (a legal music service now operates under the Napster name). "I'm just surprised it took so long," Martin said.
Not all acrimony
YouTube says it has good working relationships with most media companies. Google CEO Eric Schmidt has cited YouTube's relationships with NBC Universal and CBS as examples of how the company helps TV networks market to a younger, tech-savvy audience.
Last June, NBC signed an agreement that would allow the network to post promotional clips from shows such as Saturday Night Live on YouTube. CBS has a similar deal, as do YouTube's other partners, including Universal Music Group, the National Basketball Association and the Sundance Channel.
"Most content owners understand that we respect copyrights," Walker said. "We work every day to help them manage their content, and we are developing state-of-the-art tools to let them do that even better."
But in February, NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker criticized YouTube's inability to deploy safeguards that would prevent users from uploading copyright content. Zucker told reporters that Google blocked pornography and hate speech from going up but for some reason failed to wall out clips owned by television networks.
Then in March, NBC Universal partnered with News Corp. to create an online video network that some say will compete against YouTube. The new site, scheduled to debut this summer, will feature full-length programming, movies and clips from at least a dozen television networks and two major film studios.
Now, NBC is siding with Tur in his case against YouTube. In the amicus brief filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, NBC Universal and Viacom asked the judge in Tur's case to deny Google's request to dismiss the journalist's suit.
In their court filing, NBC Universal and Viacom claim YouTube is not covered by the DMCA's safe harbor provision and that copyright holders would suffer if YouTube prevails.
"YouTube cannot qualify for safe harbor because it is not the type of Internet service provider contemplated by Congress," attorneys with Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp wrote on behalf of clients Viacom and NBC Universal.
YouTube also doesn't fulfill the requirements for protection, according to Viacom and NBC Universal, because the video-sharing site "has a direct financial interest and the ability to control infringement that takes place on its own Website and through its own server."
Representatives for Viacom and NBC Universal could not be reached for comment.