Years have passed since Google was an idealistic upstart that vowed to do no evil. Now it's an immense public company with diverse interests to protect. And that's what it was doing when it threatened to sue websites that enable users to download audio tracks from YouTube videos.
Lawyers representing Google recently sent a threatening letter to youtube-mp3.org and music-clips.net, two of many sites that allow visitors to freely download audio files lifted from YouTube videos. These activities violate YouTube's terms of service, the letter claimed. In response, Google blocked the sites' access to YouTube.
Google's action is in line with the company's earlier efforts to protect the intellectual property it distributes. In recent years, Google has proudly touted anti-piracy measures with respect to both YouTube and its search results. This case is different though, in that the search giant is reaching beyond its own properties and demanding that other companies change their functionality or shut down altogether.
Google has good reasons for doing this. First, it would like to avoid lawsuits like the $1 billion action filed by Viacom in 2007. The media conglomerate, which owns Comedy Central, MTV and Paramount Pictures, initially lost its case against Google. However, a federal judge revived the suit earlier this year.
Thus far, the courts have ruled that the "safe harbor" provision of the Digital Milenium Copyright Act protects YouTube and sites like it from liability for infringements of user-supplied content. Google is even less likely to be held responsible for the actions of third parties that operate outside of the company's jurisdiction entirely.
The second reason is that Google desperately needs to maintain good relationships with the content providers who keep YouTube brimming with video clips.
YouTube is growing from a user-generated video site into something that Google hopes will one day compete with television networks for viewers. In addition to striking content deals with major providers, YouTube is joining sites like Hulu and Netflix in offering cable-quality original programming of its own. If Google expects to work with content producers, it must persuade them that it's willing to fight to protect their property.
Can Google succeed in thwarting unauthorized duplication of the video clips it dispenses? Probably not. After all, in addition to sites such as youtube-mp3, there are any number of other methods for grabbing content from YouTube, including the use of browser plugins and manual efforts that allow users to find the original URL of the source video. And for every copying tool Google manages to squash, three more are likely to pop up.
But the question of whether Google can plug YouTube's leaks is beside the point. The company isn't out to eliminate unauthorized downloading all together, but rather to curtail this activity as much as possible. Its actions send a message reassuring content partners that Google is looking after their interests, and to would-be developers of YouTube scraping technology that the company means business.