20th Century Fox served YouTube with a subpoena Wednesday demanding the Google-owned viral video site disclose the identity of a user who uploaded copies of entire recent episodes of primetime series "24" and "The Simpsons."
The subpoena, which first came to light on the blog Google Watch (http://googlewatch.eweek.com/index.html), was granted by a judge in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California after being filed by the News Corp.-owned studio on January 18. It is not yet known whether YouTube has complied with the request.
In addition, a second, lesser-known video site, LiveDigital, was also served with a similar subpoena.
A Fox spokesman confirmed the subpoena was filed to both YouTube and LiveDigital and served but declined further comment. A spokesman for YouTube declined comment.
The "24" episodes in question actually appeared on YouTube prior to their primetime January 14 premiere on the Fox broadcast network, which spread four hourlong episodes of the hit drama over two consecutive nights. Fox became aware the episodes were on YouTube on January 8, according to the subpoena.
Filed on the basis of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the subpoena includes testimony of Fox Entertainment Group vp Jane Sunderland suggesting Fox has been unable to determine the users' identities on its own. The uploaded material could cause Fox "irreparable harm," Sunderland said, but it was not immediately clear if the episodes in question still were posted on the site or perhaps had been removed.
However, the subpoena identifies the YouTube subscriber by the username "ECOtotal." A search under that username on the YouTube site unearths a user by that name with a banner across the top of the subscriber's page that reads, "This user account has been suspended."
Still, identifying "ECOtotal" won't necessarily explain how unaired episodes of "24" made it onto the Internet. Prior to January 8, there were reports that the same episodes had popped up on illegal filesharing sites, which may have transmitted them even before they appeared on YouTube.
This is not an unprecedented request for YouTube. Last May, prior to its $1.65 billion acquisition by Google, the site complied with a request made by Paramount Pictures to identify a user who posted a clip from the film "Twin Towers."
But Google has a history of fighting subpoenas seeking the names of those using its services.
YouTube and most other similar sites typically tell content providers they will delete copyright video when alerted by owners of the material.
Among the content companies, much of the more aggressive policing of peer-to-peer and community-based websites has been by Universal Music Group. The world's biggest record company has sued MySpace and others over what it calls illegal postings of its artists' music videos, and it came close to legal action against YouTube before striking a licensing agreement with that site last year.
Terrence Clark, a copyright attorney with the L.A. law firm Greenberg, Traurig, said Fox appears to be proceeding along proscribed legal lines in the matter.
"It's the process available under the Digital Copyright Act," Clark said. "There are certain procedures you can follow to get some information (but) this also impinges on the question of the privacy issues of the users of the sites."
Some sites might need to defend strongly against such actions as Fox is taking, but ultimately the studio is likely to prevail, said Tom Ferber, a copyright attorney with the Pryor Cashman law firm in New York.
"It's always a policy decision of the entity involved," Ferber noted. "So if you're the hard-news press, for instance, usually money is no object if it's seen as infringing on (your) rights. And (these sites) may have business issues of concern as well. But I think ultimately the studio is going to get the names that they want."
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