Thursday, March 29, 2007

How Viacom's video pirates cover their tracks

Valleywag Exclusive-1-4
It gets better. Valleywag reported yesterday how Sumner Redstone's Viacom, while suing Google for allowing pirated clips to be shared on Youtube, was quietly using the video sharing service on the media giant's own blogs. Now it turns out that some of the 83-year-old billionaire's properties have been even sneakier. Comedy Central Insider -- a website which promotes Viacom shows such the Daily Show and the Colbert Report-- has been grabbing funny clips from Google's phenomenally popular video site, probably in breach of its terms of service.

Comedy Central Insider
Comedy Central Insider Screenshot

So let's recap: the media giant's own shows are being uploaded without its permission, to Chad Hurley's Youtube; it's suing Youtube's owner, Google, for $1bn for exploiting the devotion of its fans; while the media congomerate owns its own free-wheeling video sharing site in iFilm; and sister company, CBS, also controlled by the aged media tycoon, forgets how pernicious Youtube is when it offers sports broadcasts to the search engine's video site; meanwhile some of Viacom's own web producers still use Youtube for video on their sites; while others disguise the fact by removing the Youtube logo. Here's the messy story so far. It is, in the words of one Viacom insider, a "clusterfuck".

The bloggers at Comedy Central, one of several cable networks owned by Viacom, exploit a service called Scenemaker, which lets users tag and cut online video; once copied over, the video shows up as hosted at, rather than; and the Youtube logo is stripped off. (Thanks to Valleywag commenter, kavalier, for spotting this.) The Comedy Central Insider site started using Scenemaker immediately after the parent company accused Google of building a video business on copyright piracy, suggesting a deliberate effort to cover up the conglomerate's hypocrisy.

The videos grabbed from Youtube are typically themselves pirated, so it's not as if Youtube owns them, nor any of the Google unit's video partners. But Youtube's terms of service do say: "you will not copy or distribute any part of the Website in any medium without YouTube's prior written authorization." Google probably has grounds for a suit, if it chose to embarrass Viacom.

So what's the moral of this story? Fractious media conglomerates, as they expand on the web, become subject, internally, to the same conflicts that play themselves out in court, or in the press. They have their copyright diehards; a new generation of web-savvy producers; their own inhouse pirates. Just like the world at large. These interests, so at odds, will make the bosses' jihad against Mountain View, however strong the legal case, awkward to pursue.