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Pirate Blocker Sets Sail

10/19/2007 8:00 PM Eastern

Google, trying to get in the good graces of content owners, has started testing a tool to police YouTube for unauthorized TV content.

The Internet giant touted the video-identification system, which it announced plans for several months ago, as evidence of good-faith efforts to respect copyrights. It's part legal gambit: Google and its YouTube subsidiary are staring down several lawsuits, including one filed in March by Viacom, after the companies reached an impasse in content-licensing talks.

The YouTube Video Identification tool “goes above and beyond our legal responsibilities,” YouTube product manager David King wrote in a blog posting on Google's Web site.

The goal, King said, is to help copyright holders identify their content on YouTube, and then choose what they want done with their videos: remove them, leave them there for promotional purposes or “monetize” them through an ad-revenue sharing deal with Google.

The company said the internally developed video-identification technology requires media companies to send their digital video files to Google, which would then create a “fingerprint” for each file. That fingerprint would then be compared with new clips uploaded by YouTube users to catch unauthorized copyrighted content.

Google said nine media companies are kicking the tires on the content-identification tool. Participants are said to include Time Warner, NBC Universal, CBS and The Walt Disney Co., although none of those companies would officially confirm their involvement.

YouTube claimed in a notice on its site that “early tests with content companies have shown very promising results.”

But Google CEO Eric Schmidt acknowledged that achieving 100% accuracy in automatically identifying copyrighted content on YouTube is virtually impossible, according to The New York Times.

“The question is, Can we get to 80 or 90%?” he told a group of reporters.

However accurate or inaccurate it proves to be, some YouTube critics said the effort is too little, too late.

Lou Solomon, a partner with New York law firm Proskauer Rose — which is representing England's Football Association Premier League as the lead plaintiff in a class-action copyright-infringement suit against Google — said the tool doesn't address any past incidents of infringement.

“We intend to prove that this technology has been available for years, and they haven't used it,” Solomon said.

Furthermore, he said, it's not clear what content owners would need to agree to do to use the YouTube antipiracy tool. “The fundamental question is, Is this available to everyone? What do you have to do, or sign, to take advantage of this tool?” Solomon said.

According to YouTube, eventually the Video Identification tool “will be available to all kinds of copyright holders all over the world, whether they want their content to appear on YouTube or not.”

Viacom spokesman Jeremy Zweig said wouldn't say whether the company is participating in the YouTube initiative. Asked to comment on the program, he said, “We're delighted that Google appears to be stepping up to its responsibility and ending the practice of profiting from infringement.”

Viacom, in its pending federal lawsuit, is asking for at least $1 billion in damages from Google and YouTube for allegedly posting more than 160,000 unauthorized copies of the media company's video assets. Zweig declined to discuss what bearing the copyright-identification technology would have on Viacom's lawsuit.

Google claims it takes other copyright-friendly steps, in addition to the video-identification project. That includes complying with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which requires Web sites to remove copyrighted material once notified by the content owner.

King said YouTube has had a “repeat-infringer policy,” in place since the site's launch, under which a user's account is terminated if they have uploaded content that has been deemed illegal. YouTube also already tracks the fingerprints of videos that have been removed, to block the uploading of the same file, he claimed.

In addition, the site enforces a 10-minute limit on the length of uploaded content, which eliminates the possibility of a full-length TV show or movie finding its way onto YouTube.

But even as Viacom and others expressed tentative approval of YouTube's stepped-up content protection measures, consumer advocates voiced concerns that YouTube was kowtowing to powerful media companies.

“Google's acquiescence to the content industry is likely to become the industry standard — you must filter out copyrighted content, regardless of whether you have Google's resources to build your own filter,” Gigi Sohn, co-founder of consumer-rights group Public Knowledge, wrote in a blog entry on her organization's site last week.

September