Fast Company

"Steal It" and Other Internal YouTube Emails from Viacom's Copyright Suit

YouTube v. Viacom

The U.S. District Court has just made public the documentation in the controversial Viacom vs. YouTube case. It's a goldmine of data, most of which is really dirty mud-slinging by Viacom, based on internal emails from YouTube's past.

Google's been quick off the mark to react to the unsealing of the court documents, and has a blog post defending its position and decrying Viacom's tactics already. Viacom's argument, it says, is based on misconstruing "isolated lines from a handful of emails" from way back in YouTube's history, and spinning this information into the suggestion that YouTube was "founded with bad intentions." The post also alleges that Viacom "secretly uploaded its content to YouTube," and then roughed up the footage to make it appear to have been leaked.

Viacom is trying to portray that YouTube was built on the principles of making money from out-and-out piracy, and that Google was complicit in this when it bought the site. It's even suggesting Google engaged in "high-tech extortion" by refusing to take down copyright-violating clips unless the content owners licensed the content back to Google.

The most damning of all this, though are the internal e-mails, mostly sent back and forth between YouTube's founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen. Here are the best, in their unedited glory:

• In a February 11, 2005 email to YouTube cofounders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, with the subject "aiming high," YouTube cofounder Jawed Karim wrote that, in terms of "the number of users and popularity," he wanted to "finnly place [YouTube] among" "napster," "kazaa," and "bittorrent."

• In an April 23, 2005 email to YouTube cofounders Steve Chen and Chad Hurley, YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim wrote: "It's all 'bout da videos, yo. We'll be an excellent acquisition target once we're huge."

• In an April 25, 2005 email to YouTube cofounders Steve Chen and Jawed Karim, YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley noted the presence of a "South Park" clip on YouTube and questioned whether it should be left on the site because "its [sic] copyrighted material."

• In a June 15, 2005 email to YouTube cofounders Chad Hurley and YouTube cofounder Jawed Karim, YouTube co-founder Steve Chen stated "we got a complaint from someone that we were violating their user agreement. i *think* it may be because we're hosting copyrighted content. instead of taking it down - i'm not about to take down content because our ISP is giving us shit - we should just investigate moving www.youtube.com...

• In a June 15, 2005 email to YouTube co-founders Steve Chen and Jawed Karim, YouTube co-founders Chad Hurley stated: "So, a way to avoid the copyright bastards might be to remove the 'No copyrighted or obscene material' lìne and let the users moderate the videos themselves. legally, this wì1 probably be better for us, as we'll make the case we can review all videos and tell them if they're concerned they have the tools to do it themselves."

• In a June 20, 2005 email to YouTube co-founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim wrote: "If we want to sign up lots of users who keep coming back, we have to target the people who will never upload a video in their life. And those are really valuable because they spend time watching. And if they watch, then it's just like TV, which means lots of value."

• On June 21, 2005, YouTube co-founder Jawed Hohengarten, Karim stated in an email to YouTube co-founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen that "Where our value comes in is USERS.... [O]ur buy-out value is positively affected by ... more Youtube users.... The only thing we have control over is users. We must build features that sign up tons of users, and keep them coming back."

• On July 4, 2005, YouTube co-founder Chad Hohengarten Hurley sent an email to YouTube co-founders Steve Chen and Jawed Karim titled "budlight commercials," stating "we need to reject these Hohengarten too" Steve Chen responded by asking to "leave these in a bit longer? another week or two can't hurt;" Jawed Karim subsequently stated that he "added back all 28 bud videos. stupid...," and Steve Chen replied: "okay first, regardless of the video they upload, people are going to be telling people about the site, therefore making it viraL. they're going to drive traffic. second, it adds more content to the site. third, we're going to be adding advertisements in the future so this gets them used to it. I'm asking for a couple more weeks."

• In a July 10, 2005 email to YouTube co-founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim reported that he had found a "copyright video" and stated: "Ordinarily I'd say reject it, but I agree with Steve, let's ease up on our strict policies for now. So let's just leave copyrighted stuff there if it' s news clips. I still think we should reject some other things tho. . ."; Chad Hurley replied, "ok man, save your meal money for some lawsuits! ;) no really, I guess we'll just see what happens."

• In a July 10, 2005 email to YouTube founders Jawed Karim and Steve Chen, YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley wrote: "yup, we need views. I'm a little concerned with the recent supreme court ruling on copyrighted material though."

• In a July 19, 2005 email to YouTube co-founders Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim, YouTube co-founder Steve Chen wrote: "jawed, please stop putting stolen videos on the site. We're going to have a tough time defending the fact that we're not liable for the copyrighted material on the site because we didn't put it up when one of the co-founders is blatantly stealìng content from other sites and trying to get everyone to see it."

• On July 19, 2005, YouTube co-founder Steve Chen sent an email to YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim, copying YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley, stating "why don't i just put up 20 videos of pornography and obviously copyrighted materials and then link them from the front page. what were you thinking."

• On July 22, 2005, YouTube co-founder Steve Chen forwarded to all YouTube employees "YouTube Marketing Analysis" stating that "users not only upload their own work, but can potentially upload publìcly available content for viewing. Risk area here is copyright as many videos which are uploaded are not the property of the uploader.... Although the polìcy when uploading states that the video must be legit, YouTube may be liable for any damages which copyright holders may press."

• In a July 23, 2005 email to YouTube co-founders Steve Chen and Jawed Karim, YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley responded to a YouTube link sent by Jawed Karim by saying: "if we reject this, we need to reject all the other copyrighted ones.... should we just develop a flagging system for a future push?"; Karim responded: "I say we reject this one, but not the other ones. This one is totally blatant."

• In a July 29, 2005 email about competing video websites, YouTube co-founder Steve Chen wrote to YouTube co-founders Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim, "steal it!", and Chad Hurley responded: "hmm, steal the movies?" Steve Chen replìed: "we have to keep in mind that we need to attract traffic. how much traffic will we get from personal videos? remember, the only reason why our traffic surged was due to a video of this type.... viral videos will tend to be THOSE type of videos."

• In an August 9, 2005 email to YouTube co-founders Steve Chen and Jawed Karim, YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley stated: "we need to start being diligent about rejecting copyrighted/inappropriate content. we are getting serious traffic and attention now, I don't want this to be killed by a potentially bad experience of a network exec or someone visiting us. like there is a cnn clip of the shuttle clip on the site today, if the boys from Turner would come to the site, they might be pissed? these guys are the ones that will buy us for big money, so lets make them happy. we can then roll a lot of this work into a flagging system soon."

• In response to YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley's August 9, 2005 email, YouTube co-founder Steve Chen stated: "but we should just keep that stuff on the site. I really don't see what will happen. what? someone from cnn sees it? he happens to be someone with power? he happens to want to take it down right away. he get in touch with cnn legaL. 2 weeks later, we get a cease & desist letter. we take the video down"; Chad Hurley replied: I just don't want to create a bad vibe... and perhaps give the users or the press something bad to write about."

• On August 10, 2005, YouTube co-founder J awed Karim responded to YouTube cofounder Chad Hurley: "lets remove stufflike movies/tv shows. lets keep short news clips for now. we can become stricter over time, just not overnight. like the CNN space shuttle clip, I like. we can remove it once we're bigger and better known, but for now that clip is fine." Steve Chen replìed, "sounds good."

• On September 3, 2005, YouTube co-founder Steve Chen stated in response to YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim's "really lax" policy: "yes, then i agree with you. take down whole movies, take down entire TV shows, take down XXX stuff. everything else. keep including sports, commercials, news, etc. keeping it, we improve video uploads, videos viewed, and user registrations"; Chad Hurley replied: "lets just work in that flagging feature soon. . . then we won't be lìable."

• On September 12, 2005, the "Official YouTube Blog" stated: "We are ecstatic to announce the changes we made to the site .... First up, video flagging. At the bottom of the video watch page, you will notice a new section for flagging a video. Ifyou encounter a video that's inappropriate or copyrighted, please use this feature to notify us. We will aggressively monitor these submissions and respond as quickly as we can."

Make of all that what you will (Viacom's made a legal case out of it) but Google's also slinging some mud of its own in return. In closing its blog post, it notes that Viacom's pressing for regulation that would "require YouTube--and every Web platform--to investigate and police all content users upload." Always nice to end with a threat that the other party's legal ambitions may bring an end to the Net as we know it.

Related: The Brief But Impactful History of YouTube

To follow this story as it progresses, and quite possibly gets yet more vicious, follow me, Kit Eaton on Twitter.

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6 Comments

  • Guest 2

    Yes, I noticed too they were not "raw" e-mails. Did the editor try to say nothing was added? Something sure was dropped out.

  • Guest

    The most damning of all this, though are the internal e-mails, mostly sent back and forth between YouTube's founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen. Here are the best, in their unedited glory:

      I hate to break it to you but these are not the original emails, these ARE heavily edited snipets from those emails.

  • Dan Fowler

    YouTube started and has continued to provide EXPOSURE to all kinds of content. No one is stealing anything... If you are so afraid that your intellectual property is going to be copied (as you created it) and displayed in a public forum such as YouTube then you have no business creating intellectual property or distributing it to anyone because all you are seeing are a lack of dollar signs. No one is disrespecting the value of intellectual property here. I have personally been made aware of several media modes via YouTube that I never knew about before and now I am hooked and have PURCHASED the DVD sets. The intellectual property owners have GAINED ME as a customer BECAUSE OF YOUTUBE. Media and how it is experienced and distributed has changed...FOREVER... CATCH UP WITH THE TIMES!

  • Dan Tynan

    so is there some reason why the word "Hohengarten" seems to have been inserted randomly in this piece?

    "we need to reject these Hohengarten too" says "Chad Hohengarten Hurley."

    is this some kind of code? WTF?

    dt

  • Roberto Baca

    I don't know, Tim, doesn't look to me like callous disrespect for copyright. Seems to me they were trying to find out where the line is regarding copyrighted content and users' rights. Sure, at some point it seems that they are willing to respect the letter of the law more than the spirit.

    Regarding clips, I believe that fair use doctrine allows the use of small pieces of copyrighted material for the purpose of news, review and commentary which is certainly what goes on in Youtube. They did correctly agree to remove full shows and called on each other to not breach coopyright themselves.

  • Tim Johnson

    I guess "Don't be evil" doesn't apply to stealing copyrighted material. Yeah, I know Google didn't own YouTube at the time of these e-mails, but it would hardly be worth purchasing without this arrogant and callous disrespect for the value of other people's intellectual property.

    --
    Tim Johnson, President
    Coactive Brand Lab
    Brand Designer, Marketing and Communications Expert

    www.coactivebrandlab.com