YouTube Slapped With First Copyright Lawsuit For Video Posted Without Permission

Suit claims Web site encourages copyright infringement; YouTube says charge 'without merit.'

If Robert Tur has his way, the future of how we waste time at work could be forever altered.

Last Friday, in a federal district court in California, Tur — a journalist who owns the Los Angeles News Service — filed suit against YouTube Inc., charging that the video-sharing site encourages copyright infringement by hosting footage from users who have failed to secure the necessary clearances from the videos’ owners.

It’s the first-ever copyright lawsuit filed against YouTube, and, if successful, it could open the floodgates for similar suits against the site.

At the heart of the matter is footage Tur shot during the L.A. riots in April 1992 — specifically the now-famous images of trucker Reginald Denny being beaten by several men. Tur shot the footage from a helicopter, and although it was seen across the world, it was broadcast by news agencies that obtained rights from his L.A. News Service.

YouTube’s policy is to prohibit the uploading of copyrighted material that hasn’t been granted the proper permission, and the site vigorously removes videos that violate that rule (see ” ‘Such A Pity’: YouTube Pulls Homemade Weezer Video” ). The site has maintained in the past that it is not responsible for material that violates copyright law.

But according to Tur’s lawyer, Francis Pizzulli, that’s not the case. Pizzulli said the suit is supported by the Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in the MGM v. Grokster case, in which the court ruled that P2P file-sharing sites could be sued for inducing copyright infringement.

“This is even more of a clear-cut case than the Grokster decision, because [YouTube] has a central server to collect and store data; they package it and categorize it with titles and listings,” Pizzulli said. “This is all indicative of a Web site taking an active role in copyright infringement. They are not, as they claim to be, merely an Internet service provider.”

A spokesperson for YouTube had no comment on the suit, but did send a statement to MTV News that reads, in part:

“Mr. Tur’s lawsuit is without merit. YouTube is a service provider that complies with all the provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and therefore is entitled to the full protections of the safe-harbor provisions of the Act. … Immediately upon receiving notice of [Tur's] complaint, we removed all of the plaintiff’s video clips that we were able to locate, and it is our intention to work with Mr. Tur … to remove any unauthorized works from our site.”

As of Wednesday morning (July 19), a search for the terms “Reginald Denny,” “Reginald” or “Denny” resulted in no videos. But a search for “L.A. riot” turned up several videos, including the footage Tur shot of Denny. And according to Pizzulli, that’s where the problem lies — something he refers to in the suit as “a murky moving target.”

“It’s interesting that [YouTube] emphasize that they removed all the videos that they could find. Because Mr. Tur — and several other journalists — have still been able to locate other copies of it,” Pizzulli said. “Depending on what tags you enter in the search function, you can still uncover versions of the Reginald Denny video. And while YouTube removing all the videos they could find does answer the ‘now’ issue, it does not answer how they plan on compensating him for past violations, and how they plan on preventing this from happening in the future.”

Tur is seeking compensation to the tune of $150,000 for each uploaded submission, though Pizzulli said that Tur does not plan to go after the individuals who posted the video. No date has yet been set for the hearing.