File-Sharing Redux: The Battle Continues and the Battlefield Expands  

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Read The New York Times, turn on CNBC, or open your browser to Google News. You’ll see that file-sharing is the biggest challenge to the 1999 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and one of the most important stories facing the media industry in 2007.

The process of sharing files between networked computers has been around in academic circles for a couple of decades but, when a 19-year old undergraduate invented Napster in 1999, he provided the tool to facilitate free transfer of MP3 formatted music between personal computers anywhere in the world.

Literally overnight, individuals and corporations owning music copyrights confronted a daunting new reality. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which represents five major record labels and many smaller labels, launched a series of high-profile lawsuits based on the DMCA. While these actions led to the demise of Napster, to this day RIAA continues its crusade against Napster clones in the courts.

Digitally, where music goes, movies will follow. In 2005, YouTube, a free video-sharing website allowing users to upload, view, and share video clips, was born. Content includes movie and television clips as well as music videos. Google was so smitten it plunked down $1.76 billion in stock to acquire the company.

Now the legal circus and media sideshow that lawyers, analysts, and pundits predicted five months ago is center stage. Many other “traditional media” giants (such as NBC Universal and News Corp.) that own lots of content, and therefore have major concerns about YouTube, were lining up to fight.

It was Viacom that took the first swing with a billion-dollar lawsuit, charging YouTube with copyright violation “on a massive scale.” At issue are 160,000 unauthorized clips of Viacom-owned shows like “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “MTV Unplugged.”

Google/YouTube is seeking refuge in the “safe harbor” provision of the DMCA, which exempts anybody who removes copyrighted content as soon as the owner requests it. Timing is a second issue, since DMCA became law in 1998, the year Google was founded but YouTube did not even exist.

From a media standpoint, the inherent conflicts are evergreen. The enduring themes are “traditional vs. new,” “ownership vs. accessibility,” and “solid vs. sexy.” Such storylines oblige Viacom to take a few extra steps to ensure that it is not perceived as stodgily blocking innovation, nor some ogre depriving mass audiences of a few simple harmless pleasures (which is exactly the perception that once burdened RIAA).

Among such steps:

Assemble representatives from the major content creators (authors, publishers, musicians, film makers) and owners (publishers, record companies, TV and film studios) and create a formal alliance to “preserve and protect” copyright holders. Such a step adds credibility to the cause but also reminds the world that individuals, not just a corporate behemoth, have vital interests here.

Open another front in the battle by delivering the key message that, under current law, the cost of enforcing copyrights is placed solely on the “victims of infringement,” many of whom don’t have the resources to fight what may turn into a long and protracted battle.

Target that pivotal audience of young people raised in an era of on-demand video channels with less consciousness of how the work of actual writers and directors is being usurped. To change their mindset will require a lengthy and expensive outreach effort across all traditional and new media, perhaps even advertising on Google.

It is, however, the recipe for long-term success. Indeed, we’re talking about issues management at a fundamental level. Absent a raising of mass awareness on behalf of the artists involved, the issue of file sharing will recur in one form or another with predictable regularity – Napster one day, Grokster the next, YouTube today.

The way to win the long-haul battle is by putting the most sympathetic, and directly comprehensible, human face on the complex legal and technological issues at play.

About Author

Honored as Crisis Agency of the Year by The Holmes Report in 2005, Levick Strategic Communications protects brands and reputations during high-stakes litigation with comprehensive campaigns on behalf of clients on litigation communications. Visit to find other helpful articles, books, and newsletters.


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