The YouTube Police

Big Media is spending millions on monitors

As Viacom's (VIA ) $1 billion copyright-infringement lawsuit against Google (GOOG ) and YouTube grinds through the courts, another drama is unfolding behind the scenes. In a cramped office in New York's Times Square, dozens of twentysomethings work day and night scouring YouTube for Viacom TV shows and movies that have been uploaded by just about anybody. For each clip deemed stolen, Viacom's team sends out a "takedown" notice requiring YouTube to remove it immediately. Back in San Bruno, Calif., a crew of young YouTubers finds the specified clips and pulls them.

Naturally, Viacom is deeply displeased that it is spending upwards of $100,000 a month to scan someone else's site for its own content. NBC Universal, Time Warner (TWX ), and others have set up their own war rooms; they aren't too happy either. They'd rather get paid for their programming. And if the whole process seems strangely analog, that's because YouTube is not yet using filtering technology that would automate the process. "It's frustrating," says Rick Cotton, general counsel for NBC Universal, which is sending 1,000 takedown notices a month to YouTube. "And...completely inadequate."

The Web searches are time-consuming and inefficient. Since November, Viacom says, it has reviewed 2 million clips and sent 200,000 takedown notices to the site, a 10% hit rate. NBCU says it is spending well over $1 million a month for its global anti-piracy efforts, which require the services of 25 legal, policy, and tech experts at NBCU. And both companies are outsourcing the work to such outfits as BayTSP, a Silicon Valley firm that employs a team of 30 tattooed and pierced youngsters to find stolen clips.

For its part, YouTube has set up a unit called the SQUAD (Safety Quality User Advocacy Department) Team. It responds, 24/7, to requests to take clips down. Members were recruited from the likes of Craigslist Inc. and eBay Inc. (EBAY ) for their customer-service expertise, handy when dealing with angry media reps.

Another big site, MySpace--owned by News Corp., which feels the content guys' pain--is already using filtering technology from Audible Magic Corp. It embeds fingerprinting technology in video files. Audible Magic CEO Vance Ikezoye says the process is completely automated. Copyright holders add original content to an Audible Magic database so that, when content is uploaded, a fingerprint of the file is compared with those in the database. If there's a match, MySpace's "takedown tool" yanks the file.

On May 11, MySpace announced an initiative with Audible Magic called Take Down Stay Down, which will create a database that compiles fingerprints of files already taken down. Once they are off the site, they can't be uploaded again.

By Tom Lowry, with Paula Lehman

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