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The YouTube world opens an untamed frontier for copyright law

Laws on use of sampled material are murky, and stand to get murkier before they get clearer, experts say.

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Larry Richard is one of the millions to have discovered the world of YouTube, the free website that allows people to post, watch, and share video clips. When he receives a link to the site, usually via e-mail, he spends a few moments to click and watch a clip on his computer screen – sometimes a video of a friend's singing recital, other times a snippet of a foreign commercial or a monologue from late-night TV.

"It's entertaining, it's information, it's a community of people sharing things," says Mr. Richard, a marketing consultant in Santa Monica, Calif. But is it legal, given that at least some of what he's watching is copyrighted material being disseminated by individuals who clearly do not hold the copyright?

The law on this matter is murky, and likely to get murkier before it gets clearer, say experts in intellectual property law.

Several companies such as Time Warner have been threatening YouTube with copyright infringement lawsuits. Now that Internet giant Google has purchased YouTube, experts expect that the rampant disregard of copyright law shown by early YouTube users, at least, is likely to get resolved – but they caution that each successive new technology can put early users, in particular, on nebulous legal ground, especially if financial profit is involved.

"As more and more technology comes along, the legal underpinnings governing them are not becoming clearer," says Mark McCreary, a partner in the Technology and Venture Finance Group of Fox Rothschild, which handles intellectual property cases. Increasing ability to download video clips from YouTube and to watch videos on iPods and cellphones will present users with more opportunities to violate copyright – wittingly or unwittingly, he says.

Still, those who watch videos at YouTube – whether or not such content is copyrighted – are unlikely to be pursued with the same fervor with which the music industry prosecuted those who downloaded music free of charge via the file-sharing website Napster, say Mr. McCreary and other experts.

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