Media Lifeline: Online copyright

A US court's ruling against Viacom is a shot in the arm for peer-to-peer and file-sharing sites the world over.

March 2001: Emboldened by the stirring example of Napster in the US, Kazaa, a Finno-Swedish music file-sharing initiative, launches in the Bohemian milieu of Amsterdam. Unfortunately, it's hardly up and running when litigation brought against Napster in the US comes to a head. Napster is forced to close as a free peer-to-peer operation in July 2001 - though the Napster brand is subsequently acquired by Bertelsmann.

November 2003: A bunch of Swedish libertarians launch The Pirate Bay, a site offering free access to digitised music and film. It arrives just in time to see Kazaa, which had been sued in the Netherlands almost immediately after it launched, lose its final appeal in the Dutch Supreme Court. Kazaa manages to prolong its life for many months, staying just about one step ahead of the law by relocating to Australia and Vanuatu.

March 2007: Viacom sues YouTube for a cool $1 billion, alleging that 160,000 clips of unauthorised Viacom material have been available on the site and that the clips have been viewed more than 1.5 billion times. Similar legal actions are launched by other rights holders.

April 2009: Four of The Pirate Bay's founders are found guilty of "assistance to copyright infringement" by a Swedish court and are each sentenced to a year in prison. They appeal and vow to do whatever it takes to keep the site active - but thanks to continuing action by rights owners, they find it increasingly difficult to find web-hosting companies willing to sell them bandwidth.

June 2010: In a landmark ruling by a US court, Viacom's suit against Google and YouTube is thrown out. The judge rules that, just because they're aware that users are illegally posting copyright material, the defendants cannot be held liable for it. Viacom sources say its boss Sumner Redstone will fight the "flawed" ruling.

Fast forward ...

March 2011: Google sues a bunch of groovy, swashbuckling Swedish libertarians when they launch YT.com - a site that's marketed as "the best bits of YouTube", minus all the Google Chrome promos. YT.com also promises to show the good stuff (Premier League football, SpongeBob SquarePants) that, thanks to a continuing drip-feed of bad publicity, YouTube no longer feels inclined to let you see.

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