YouTube Won’t Face Copyright Class Action Over Anti-Piracy Tools, Judge Rules
A federal judge on Monday (May 22) dealt a major blow to a lawsuit that claims YouTube enables piracy by restricting access to copyright tools like Content ID, refusing to allow the case to proceed as a class action that could have included tens of thousands of rightsholders.
The lawsuit, filed by a composer named Maria Schneider, claims that YouTube has become a “hotbed of piracy” because the platform provides “powerful copyright owners” like record labels with Content ID to block and monetize unauthorized uses of their content, but fails to do the same for “ordinary owners.”
But in his ruling on Monday, Judge James Donato said that Schneider could not team up with tens of thousands of other rightsholders who she claims suffered similar harm from YouTube’s policies, dramatically reducing the scope of the lawsuit.
Cases can only be “certified” as class actions if the various accusers share similar complaints against the defendant. And in Schneider’s case, Judge Donato said different rightsholders would have very different cases against YouTube.
“It has been said that copyright claims are poor candidates for class-action treatment, and for good reason,” the judge wrote. “Every copyright claim turns upon facts which are particular to that single claim of infringement [and] every copyright claim is also subject to defenses that require their own individualized inquiries.”
Filed in 2020, Schneider’s lawsuit claims that YouTube (owned by Google parent Alphabet) forces songwriters and other smaller rights holders to use “vastly inferior and time-consuming manual means” of policing infringement, allowing piracy of their material to flourish on the platform.
For its part, YouTube says it’s done nothing wrong. In court documents, the company has argued that it’s spent “spent over $100 million developing industry-leading tools” to prevent piracy, but that it limits access because “in the hands of the wrong party, these tools can cause serious harm.”
With a trial date looming next month, attorneys for Schneider had urged Judge Donato to let the case move forward as a class action. An expert retained by her legal team suggested that the class “at a minimum” would include between 10,000 and 20,000 aggrieved copyright owners.
“The Copyright Act does not countenance such blatant disregard of individual artists’ intellectual property rights,” her attorneys wrote. “Class actions were created for this institutionalized misbehavior that relies upon the disincentives and lack of resources for a lawsuit absent collective action. A class action is the superior method through which YouTube’s participation in and facilitation of copyright infringement can be held to account.”
But in Monday’s ruling, Judge Donato strongly disagreed. He said the many individual claims against YouTube would require “highly individualized inquiries into the merits,” including a case-by-case assessment of whether YouTube possibly had a valid license to those particular songs.
“Whether YouTube has a license for a particular work will be a matter of intense inquiry at trial,” the judge wrote. “The answer to this inquiry will depend upon facts and circumstances unique to each work and copyright claimant.”
Monday’s order won’t end the case, but it will now proceed to trial based only on copyrights owned by Schneider and two other plaintiffs (Uniglobe Entertainment and AST Publishing). The lawsuit is scheduled for a June 12 trial, though it’s unclear if that date will be changed in the wake of Monday’s decision.
An attorney for Schneider and a representative for YouTube did not immediately return requests for comment on Monday’s order.