On May 15, 2013, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York denied plaintiffs’ request for class certification in a landmark case, alleging that YouTube, Inc. and its parent company Google, Inc. (collectively, “YouTube”) were secondarily liable for the alleged copyright violations of those who have posted videos and music on the popular video-sharing website. (See The Football Ass’n Premier League Limited et al. v. YouTube, Inc. et al., 07-cv-03582 (LLS) (May 15, 2013) Dkt. No. 371.) The ruling is an important precedent for companies hosting social media websites and other content-sharing platforms.
Plaintiffs, including the Football Association Premier League Limited, initiated the class action lawsuit in 2007. (See Compl., Dkt. No. 1.) In the complaint, plaintiffs alleged that YouTube directly and vicariously committed copyright infringement, contributed to copyright infringement, and induced copyright infringement by website users. Specifically, plaintiffs alleged, among other things, that YouTube encouraged users to share copyrighted content, incentivized infringement by sharing ad revenue with those that posted content, and that YouTube did not utilize its alleged capacity to either identify and prevent infringement, or to pay copyright owners royalties. (See id., ¶¶35-72.)
Plaintiffs filed a motion attempting to certify two separate classes of putative plaintiffs. As alleged, the “repeat infringement class” would have been comprised of all copyright owners whose copyrights were: (a) infringed upon by a YouTube user who was ultimately blocked by YouTube; and (b) whose copyrights were again infringed upon by the same or another user. The second putative class, the “music publisher class,” would have accounted for all copyright owners whose musical compositions were identified, tracked, monetized, and allowed to be used by YouTube without proper authorization. (See Order, Dkt. No. 371at p. 2.)
The enormity of the potential classes figured prominently in the Court’s order denying class certification. The Court noted that, as of March 2010, “site traffic on YouTube had soared to more than one billion daily views, with more than 24 hours of new videos uploaded to the site every minute.” (See id at p. 3.) The Court also stated that the “suggestion that a class action of these dimensions can be managed with judicial resourcefulness is flattering, but unrealistic.” (See id.)
Aside from the sheer size of the putative classes, however, the Court held that the issues germane to plaintiffs’ copyright claims against YouTube for hosting as opposed to generating infringing material involved common questions that could only be answered by examining individualized evidence. (See id. at p. 6.) The Court further held that, although they would arise with great frequency, questions related to the validity and ownership of the copyright; whether the copyright holders gave adequate notices to YouTube; whether the material was licensed or if its use was authorized; and the amount of damages, would expose dissimilarities within the proposed classes that would prevent class-wide adjudication. (See id. at p. 6.) In so holding, the Court cited the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S.Ct. 2541, 2551 (2011), finding that the capacity of a class-wide proceeding to generate common answers apt to drive resolution is more important to determining class certification than whether the action merely involves common questions.
The Court’s ruling in this matter is an important affirmation that copyright claims are generally poor candidates for class action treatment. In particular, the ruling may prove to set an important precedent in class-action claims involving companies that operate social media or content-sharing websites, since many of the questions relevant to whether a party may be secondarily liable for a copyright claim involve highly-individualized facts.