After weeks of fruitless negotiations, the media conglomerate Viacom - owner of MTV, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central and Paramount Pictures - sued Google and its wildly popular video-sharing site YouTube yesterday for what it claims is copyright infringement.
The lawsuit represents the biggest face-off between old and new media since the Recording Industry Association of America forced Napster to shut down its song-trading system in 2001. And it could force changes in the delivery of the Internet's biggest draw, its free content, analysts say.
The lawsuit likely is one of many to come, said Bruce Sunstein, co-founder of the intellectual property law firm Bromberg & Sunstein in Boston.
"Finding a way of peaceful coexistence is quite a struggle," Sunstein said. "Google's motto is 'Don't be evil,' and you could argue that with YouTube that motto is wearing a little thin."
In a statement, Viacom said YouTube "is a significant, for-profit organization that has built a lucrative business out of exploiting the devotion of fans to others' creative works in order to enrich itself," adding that YouTube and Google "actively engage in, promote and induce this infringement."
In its own statement, YouTube pointed out that its video-sharing system actually benefits copyright owners because it exposes their material to a huge audience:
"YouTube is great for users and offers real opportunities to rights holders: the opportunity to interact with users; to promote their content to a young and growing audience; and to tap into the online-advertising market."
Jeff Jarvis, who blogs about media at Buzzmachine.com and is director of the interactive journalism program the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism, yesterday posted an entry in which he called the Viacom lawsuit "boneheaded." But he wrote in an e-mail later that he did not think it meant "the beginning of the end of the free Internet."
"There are too many smart media companies that realize the value of your fans recommending you," Jarvis wrote. He compared Viacom's move to the RIAA's legal efforts against Napster, which agreed to pay more than $26 million to settle its disputes with music publishers and songwriters.
"Users can watch clips on Viacom's sites - such as from Comedy Central's The Daily Show with
John K. Hartman, a journalism professor at Central Michigan University, said the Viacom/YouTube imbroglio could be a harbinger of other developments
"We are not far away from Google, Yahoo buying newspaper chains to control content and ads and eliminate suits," said Hartman.
"The Internet," he said, "wants to be free."