February 15, 2007
Google Hands Over Names to Fox in 24 Piracy Controversy

Last month, I asked, "The question is whether YouTube has the same rights as a lawyer, doctor, priest ,or journalist and whether the company sees its users in the same way those other professions see their clients, patients, parishioners, or sources." The answer to the latter question is now apparent.

Google has complied with the request from Twentieth Century Fox to name the users who uploaded videos of 24 and The Simpsons before their aired on the network, the legal move that I called a "symbolic subpoena." After all, this does little to correct the actual piracy, and these users were just passing video along and were not the ones who leaked it in the first place. However, they are the lambs being led to the slaughter.

It's not as if Google doesn't have the legal right. After all, they warned everyone. YouTube's privacy policy states that the company "may release personally identifiable information" if hte law requires them to do so or also "in the good-faith belief that such action is necessary to comply with state and federal laws (such as U.S. Copyright Law) or respond to a court order, subpoena, or search warrant."

So they had already explicitly stated that they have the right to hand over the names, and that's what they have done.

Since finding the user probably wouldn't have been that hard, the point for Fox was to set a legal precedent, while it still doesn't discover who leaked the material in the first place, which is the question the company should be more concerned with. Nevertheless, this sends a message to users and Google, that as the company's statement suggested, "Fox is committed to vigorously protecting our content from illegal Internet distribution and other forms of piracy."

Several bloggers (such as here), and Marshall Kirkpatrick at TechCrunch is right in pointing out that "the moral high ground is clearly far smaller in this case" than in other times when Google has resisted U.S. government subpoenas." And Ron Coleman writes, "This isn't a civil liberties issue or a privacy issue. It's a civil litigation issue. There's no legitimate countercultural or civil-disobedience issue here, no shady defamation claim meant to flush out the names of disloyal employees, no Big Brother, no controversial foreign policy or Homeland Security play. This is stealing" (emphasis his).

He is responding to Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit, who wrote a brief note complaining about the power of the entertainment industry.

I agree that there's little question about the legality of what this user did, although there is still bigger problems for Fox in who is leaking their content in the first place. This is just a third party caught in the crossfire, who nevertheless did something illegal. What I see as the larger problem is that these companies are not distinguishing between legitimate "fair uses" of material, what I have written about as quoting, and blatant piracy.