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Viacom v. YouTube: The Beagle That Didn't Bite

Remember the copyright-infringement lawsuit Viacom flung at YouTube waaaay back in 2007? That was Internet light-years ago, but the suit lives on.

Quick summary: After Viacom won a partial decision on appeal in April 2012, the case was sent back to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York for additional review. The big issue is settled -- the Digital Millennium Copyright Act does give YouTube safe harbor, the 2nd Appeals Court ruled -- but the question is whether YouTube followed the exact letter of the law.

The lower court now must determine “whether any specific infringements of which Google and YouTube had knowledge or awareness correspond to the clips-in-suit in these actions” and whether they made a “deliberate effort to avoid guilty knowledge,” among other legal points.

According to Google, the whole legal scrap was really a business dispute -- and came after Viacom’s failed attempt to acquire the video-sharing site.

Court documents cite Viacom’s “Project Beagle” as the code-name for its planned takeover of YouTube. Viacom was willing to fork over only up to $800 million, according to the documents. “Help us get YouTube. We cannot see it go to Fox/NBC. Too much of our consumers time spent there,” then-MTVN chairman Judy McGrath wrote in an internal email in July 2006. Viacom even offered to team up with Google on YouTube but those overtures were rejected and ultimately Google won YouTube for $1.65 billion.

Viacom, in its legal response, downplayed its intent to buy YouTube: "While some Viacom employees briefly considered the idea of exploring a possible acquisition of YouTube, Defendants dramatically overstate the seriousness of Viacom’s consideration of such an acquisition."

So, what did “Project Beagle” mean?

It’s a reference to Viacom wanting to beat News Corp. and Fox to the punch in buying YouTube -- i.e., a beagle flushes a fox out of its hole for the kill. That’s the story from an exec who was in the thick of the wrangling at the time.

Remember, this was right after Rupert Murdoch swooped in and snatched MySpace out of Viacom’s hands (and allegedly led to CEO Tom Freston being shown the door). Right, MySpace didn’t pan out so great, but again, this was Internet eons ago.

I asked a Viacom source if the beagle/Fox thing was true. It “didn’t ring a bell” and seemed “doubtful,” the source said. Besides which, the exec added slyly, “I think beagles chase rabbits, anyway.”

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