There can be little doubt that the American media giant Viacom, which is suing YouTube for breach of copyright, has a strong case. Anyone who has even briefly visited the popular video-sharing website will know that there is a mass of legally protected television content there, all of it freely available at the click of mouse.
Yet in its pursuit of this case, Viacom has blundered into the treacherous terrain of internet privacy. The media company has this week persuaded an American court to order YouTube to hand over details of who has been watching video clips on its site. In resisting Viacom, Google, YouTube's parent company, thus finds itself in the unusual position of standing up for the privacy of its users.
There is an irony here because Google itself stands accused of breaching personal privacy through its Street View program, which is being extended to include some British cities. This program matches photos of locations to Google's online maps. The problem is that the pictures often capture the faces of passers-by. The pressure group Privacy International is threatening to report the internet leviathan to the UK Information Commissioner unless remedial action is taken. This follows a row about Google's email system, which scans messages for key words and displays "relevant" adverts to the user. Sensitive though such issues are, Viacom's legal action could provoke a far greater outcry.
Viacom should reconsider its demand for all this information. The firm argues that it needs the details of viewers to support its $1bn legal claim. But Viacom risks a far more expensive public relations disaster if it persists. Furthermore, though it could probably defeat YouTube in the courts, other websites would soon spring up where protected content could be shared.
Television companies would do better to accept that the market has changed. The simple reality is that people can share video content online just as easily as music files. Wise television companies will embrace the technology, rather than attempting to resist it. File-sharing sites could be an effective way to promote the wares of traditional broadcasters. Some, such as the BBC, have already gone down this route.
The music industry spent many years and a small fortune going after the online file-sharers, only to be forced to overhaul its business strategy anyway. Do the television companies really want to repeat history?