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Long-running YouTube Content ID lawsuit collapses following class action decision

By | Published on Tuesday 13 June 2023

YouTube Content ID

The big Content ID legal battle being led by musician Maria Schneider is over. Plaintiffs in the long-running litigation dismissed their action on Sunday – the day before a trial was due to begin – after the Ninth Circuit Appeals Court declined to intervene on an earlier decision by the judge overseeing the case to deny it class action status.

Schneider and others argued that YouTube does not do enough to help independent creators to stop the unlicensed distribution of their content on the video site. Because, while YouTube’s Content ID is a sophisticated rights management system, it is only available to large copyright owning businesses and content aggregators.

Independent creators have to manually monitor and manage the unlicensed use of their content by users on the YouTube platform. And the manual system provided by YouTube is defective, the plaintiff’s alleged, meaning that the Google-owned company isn’t fulfilling its obligations under copyright law to ensure that all and any copyright owners can stop the infringement of their works on its platform.

There were plenty of twists and turns as Schneider’s lawsuit went through the motions. An initial co-plaintiff had to drop out after it emerged that he had employed dodgy tactics in a bid to get access to Content ID. Replacement co-plaintiffs then came on board. Meanwhile, additional allegations were made that YouTube removes or alters copyright management information that is often embedded in content and which can be used in anti-piracy efforts.

Schneider wanted class action status for the lawsuit, which would mean that any success in court could benefit all independent creators whose content has been used by third parties without permission on the YouTube site. But judge James Donato last month ruled that the case wasn’t suitable for a class action, because each creator’s specific copyright claims would need to be separately assessed.

That decision – described as “manifestly erroneous” by Team Schneider – had a big impact on the case. Aside from significantly reducing the reach of any potential judgement in favour of the copyright owners, it also prompted YouTube to change its defence strategy.

The change of strategy was because the ruling meant that the Google company could focus on the specifics of the complaints raised by each of the plaintiffs in the case rather than having to deal with more general arguments about YouTube’s obligations under copyright law. A bigger debate in court about YouTube’s obligations could have resulted in wider liabilities or forced more wide-ranging changes to the way the video site operates.

With all that in mind, Schneider’s lawyers tried to get the decision on class action status overturned, taking the matter to the Ninth Circuit Appeals Court. They also tried to get the start date for the trial in the case – which was yesterday – pushed back, arguing that if the decision on class action status was overturned it would totally change the substance of the debates in court. And so there was no point starting those debates while a final decision on the class action status was still to be decided.

However, on Friday, the Ninth Circuit denied the Schneider side’s petition for permission to appeal the lower court’s ruling on class action status. After some last minute wrangling between the plaintiffs and defendants, on Sunday it was confirmed that Schneider et al were dismissing their action, with prejudice, meaning they can’t subsequently file a new complaint on these issues.

A court filing read: “Pursuant to Federal Rule Of Civil Procedure, plaintiffs Maria Schneider, Uniglobe Entertainment LLC and AST Publishing Ltd, and defendants YouTube LLC and Google LLC, hereby stipulate to the dismissal of the action. All claims that plaintiffs raised or could have raised in this action are dismissed WITH PREJUDICE. Each party will bear its own costs, expenses, and attorneys’ fees”.

And so an interesting legal battle that raised some legitimate concerns about how independent creators are able to manage and police their rights online has come to an end, without those concerns getting any real consideration in court.