YouTube Liable for Copyright Infringement, Austrian Court Finds in Preliminary Ruling

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In a potentially groundbreaking decision, the Vienna Commercial Court has found that YouTube is not a neutral host provider but must prevent third parties from uploading copyright infringing content.

A preliminary decision by an Austrian commercial court could have a seismic impact on the economy of online video.

The Vienna Commercial Court this week found that online video platform YouTube is directly liable for the copyright infringements committed by its users and not, as YouTube and parent company Google have always maintained, a neutral technical platform that cannot be held legally responsible for the content it carries.

The decision is not yet legally binding but, if maintained in the court's final ruling, could have a major impact on how not just YouTube but also other online platforms such as Facebook operate in Europe.

Austrian commercial TV channel Puls4 filed suit against YouTube back in 2014 after copyright-protected content from its channels was posted on the online video platform. YouTube argued that it was a technical service, a so-called host provider, and therefore fell under the provisions of the European Union's E-Commerce Act, which stipulates technical service providers are intermediaries are not liable for the content posted by their users,

The court, in its initial ruling, disagreed, finding that YouTube's activity in “sorting, filtering and linking” content on its platform, “in particular by creating tables of contents according to predefined categories” helps determine the surfing behavior of its users. Thus, according to the court, Youtube cannot be considered a neutral platform.

If this decision is held up in court, the impact could be enormous. YouTube and, by extension, services like Facebook would have to tightly monitor content on their sites or potentially face punitive fines.

In a statement to Austrian media, YouTube said it was studying the ruling and “holding all our options open, including appealing” the decision. Both sides have four weeks to petition the court before it issues its binding ruling. If the preliminary ruling stands, it is expected YouTube will appeal. 

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