Achtung! Criminal Investigation Against YouTube Underway in Germany

A criminal investigation has been launched against senior executives of YouTube and parent company Google in Hamburg, Germany, over allegations of copyright infringement, according to media reports from that country. The case started after a complaint by German music rights holders; Hamburg’s prosecutor has formally requested assistance from U.S. colleagues to compel YouTube to produce log files identifying who uploaded as well as who viewed 500 specific videos.

It’s unclear if the investigation will ever result in an actual court case. German prosecutors routinely throw out criminal investigations against copyright infringement, leaving it up to the parties involved to pursue civil lawsuits or settle out of court. The case does, however, once again demonstrate that Viacom’s massive one billion-dollar lawsuit isn’t the only copyright dispute Google has to tackle. There are regularly lawsuits all around the globe accusing YouTube and Google as running a worldwide video platform. Indeed, at a time when fragmented rights and universal access continue to collide, not irking rights holders seems impossible.

The current investigation started as the result of a formal complaint by Hamburg-based lawyer Jens Schippmann, who represents 25 German musicians, producers and music publishers. Schippmann sued Google in civil court earlier this year, alleging that videos of his clients have been viewed more that 125 million times without any compensation. Schippmann now alleges that Google didn’t respond to requests to take down more that 8,000 videos and that his clients were denied access to the company’s Content ID Program. He also claimed that users would utilize YouTube as a kind of “covert file-sharing platform,” tagging his clients videos with keywords like “album quality” to encourage downloading.

Google strongly objected to these claims, according to a report by German IT news site Netzwelt.de. German Google spokesperson Henning Dorstewitz rejected the idea that executives or other employees of Google or YouTube were committing criminal acts of infringement. “We cooperate with thousands of rights holders across the globe,” Dorstewitz told Netzwelt.

He was undoubtedly referring to Google’s Content ID system, which is able to identity songs used in videos based on audio fingerprinting technologies, among other things. Google recently told us that more than a thousand rights holders have utilized Content ID to date, with the total number of reference files used to identify rights holders’ works now being north of a million. Content ID makes it possible to flag certain videos or songs used in videos for takedown, but rights holders can also elect to keep these videos up and instead monetize them through advertising. These decisions can be country-specific, making it possible, for example, to monetize content in the U.S. and take it down in other countries.

Content ID hasn’t stopped rights holders around the globe from crossing swords with Google. Part of the problem is that music rights are extraordinarily complicated, with many different parties owning rights to the same song based on the type of use as well as the territory. One example: Licensing talks between the German music rights group GEMA and YouTube broke down this spring. German YouTube users have not only had to go without countless videos featuring songs licensed by GEMA ever since, but they won’t be able to watch U2’s YouTube concert that will be streamed live by the site this Sunday, either.

However, the current criminal investigation wouldn’t go away even if Google and GEMA made up tomorrow. The rights holders represented by Schippmann only signed over certain rights to GEMA and instead decided to go after Google by themselves.

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