YouTube judge overturns his own precedent on punitive damages

Media conglomerate Viacom cannot seek punitive damages in its lawsuit against video sharing site YouTube, a judge has ruled.

The US judge has overturned his own previous ruling on the issue in a separate case.

Viacom is suing YouTube in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York for copyright infringement.

It claims that YouTube has violated copyright laws by hosting videos owned by it at its popular site.

Viacom has asked for punitive damages from YouTube, which is unusual since only actual or statutory damages are awarded under the copyright legislation it is using to sue YouTube.

The media company had cited an old case ruled on by the judge in the present case, Judge Louis Stanton, in which Stanton said that punitive damages might be permissible.

Judge Stanton has now said that those damages cannot be awarded in copyright cases.

"If it ever was, that decision is no longer good law," said Judge Stanton in his current ruling, referring to his previous one. "Recent decisions have rejected its holding."

Judge Stanton had previously ruled in a case involving photographer Andrea Blanch and the artist Jeff Koons in which Blanch claimed that a work by Koons infringed her rights in one of her photos.

The particular circumstances of that case meant that Blanch could not claim actual or statutory damages, meaning that she would receive no compensation for infringement.

This was why Stanton tried to allow punitive damages to be awarded.

"Although recognizing that 'Conventional authority holds that punitive damages are unavailable in copyright infringement actions', I gave Blanch the opportunity to argue, on the facts, that such an apparently anomalous result was not required by the law, and granted Blanch 'leave to amend the complaint so that plaintiff has a chance to prove malice and raise squarely the question whether punitive damages are available to her'," said Stanton.

Stanton admitted that the "leading treatise on copyright law" recently described the decision on which he had based his earlier ruling as a "rogue case" and said that it would be particularly inappropriate in this instance since Viacom have the other kinds of damages open to them, he said.

"Common-law punitive damages cannot be recovered under the Copyright Act," he said.

Viacom's suit seeks more than $1 billion in damages over the use of material from its channels, such as MTV, Comedy Central and Nickleodeon.