Google Unveils Video Filter. Viacom Settlement Coming?


Google has finally launched a long-awaited filtering system to suss out pirated videos on YouTube. When Google bought YouTube a year ago, it had promised to implement the system by the end of 2006; throughout the spring and summer of this year, Google execs and lawyers said the system was just about done.

Now that it’s actually here, the filter will prompt three big questions:

1) How well does it actually work?
Acoustic fingerprinting technology has been around for a while, but video recognition is much more complicated, and the sheer variety of video sources up on YouTube — everything from direct, digital transfers to shaky camcorder footage of television shows and movies — will make it even harder. If the system can’t get a majority of the videos it’s supposed to detect, it won’t do much good. Presumably this is what has taken Google a year to get right.

2)  How much burden does it place on copyright holders?
YouTube’s current anti-piracy system works this way: Copyright holders scan YouTube for infringement, then send the company a takedown notice. YouTube takes down the video. Repeat. It’s a huge burden for anyone with a substantial catalogue of video — i.e, all of Hollywood. The filtering system is supposed to relieve that burden by automating the process. But it also requires copyright holders to submit all the video they want YouTube to look out for. The good news is that if the system works, it only has to be done once for each piece of work. The bad news is that many copyright holders  — think of any big Hollywood studio, or a broadcast network — have a heck of a lot of work to submit if they want to particpate.

3) The $1 Billion Question: What does this mean for the Viacom lawsuit?
Google, of course, will argue that this shouldn’t affect the Viacom suit, since it will argue that it was never infringing on Viacom’s copyright in the first place. “Like many of these other policies and tools, Video Identification goes above and beyond our legal responsibilities,” YouTube Project Manager David King argues in a blog posting. And Viacom may well argue that it doesn’t change a thing, either: Its lawyers may say that the burden of tracking down infringing work should be Google’s problem, not theirs. Our guess: The suit isn’t going away anytime soon.

Update: Viacom is making encouraging sounds; the filter may provide both sides with face-saving cover for an out-of-court settlement. Here’s a statement from Viacom General Counsel Mike Fricklas: “We’re delighted that Google appears to be stepping up to its responsibility and ending the practice of profiting from infringement.” Our interpretation: We’re happy with the filter, conceptually. If it works, then settling the suit is just a matter of figuring out how much Google will pay us to use our video — that is, the same issue we were negotiating before we went to court.

Related: Viacom’s YouTube Legal Strategy: Give A Little