Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Universal Music Gets Slapped in Court. What Does This Mean for Veoh–and YouTube?

Just how big a deal was a federal judge’s ruling Monday in the copyright-infringement fight between Veoh and Universal Music Group?

Depends on who you ask, of course.

Executives at Veoh say Judge A. Howard Matz has given them a new lease on life, and at least some of the company’s investors are doing some chest-beating. Universal, the world’s largest music label, says it’s confident it will win an appeal.

You can get the same split opinion by asking two different companies that happen to be locked in a similar fight. Executives at Google’s (GOOG) YouTube, which is trying to fend off a copyright suit filed by Viacom (VIA), say the Veoh ruling bolsters their case. You can guess what Viacom says.

The gist of the fight: Universal says Veoh didn’t try hard enough to keep illegally uploaded material off the video site; Veoh says it made a good-faith effort. Matz agreed with Veoh and tossed out Universal’s claims.

Even if you disregard the posturing, it’s fair to say there’s a genuine debate over the ruling’s meaning. Veoh, along with some of my bloggy colleagues, is treating the decision as the final word on Web copyright disputes, or at least those that involve the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

And Matz certainly slapped Universal around. But it’s worth noting that copyright owners have lost Web cases in the Ninth District before, but ultimately won on appeal. Ask Grokster, the now-defunct file-sharing network that dissolved after a 2005 Supreme Court ruling.

You can read all of Matz’s judgment at the bottom of this post. But this excerpt, in which he argues that simply having illegal material on your site isn’t a crime, and neither is knowing about it (at least, in a general sense), gives you a good idea of Matz’s thrust and tone:

No doubt it is common knowledge that most websites that allow users to contribute material contain infringing items. If such general awareness were enough to raise a “red flag,” the DMCA safe harbor would not serve its purpose of “facilitat[ing] the robust development and world-wide expansion of electronic commerce, communications, research, development, and education in the digital age,” and “balanc[ing] the interests of content owners, on-line and other service providers, and information users in a way that will foster the continued development of electronic commerce and the growth of the Internet.”

Legal debate aside, the ruling does give a practical benefit for Veoh. It allows the company to fetch a higher price on the auction block.

CEO Dmitry Shapiro has been shopping the site to bidders over the summer, and as of a few months ago, he was willing to accept less than the $70 million investors like Time Warner (TWX), Goldman Sachs (GS) and former Disney (DIS) CEO Michael Eisner have poured into the site.

Selling a Web video site in 2009 is a tough challenge without a handicap, but the lawsuit was a big one. It was a huge time-and-money suck–Veoh may have spent as much as $6 million fighting the case in the last two years–and more important, the unresolved case was a huge liability. Who wants to buy a lawsuit?

Now, Shapiro says, Veoh’s options include not selling at all. He insists that some of Veoh’s existing backers are willing to recapitalize the company and that new investors might join in as well.

I’ll take him at his word, but if I had to bet, I’d wager that Veoh ends up getting acquired sooner than later. Maybe quite soon–the company has a board meeting today.

Wonder what they’ll talk about?


Still here? How about that? You get a bonus video! (But be warned: Pacino chews up a lot of scenery here, and there is some impassioned cursing.)

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