"The very big difference between today's YouTube and the music-sharing of MP3 files of several years ago is that you have to watch and you can't – absent the knowledge of advanced hackers – copy it for your own use," says David Axtell, an intellectual property specialist at the law firm Leonard, Street and Deinard in Minneapolis. "During Napster's heyday, people were making their own digital copies and using them on their own."
But concerns should be higher for those who actually submit videos for posting and watching, say Mr. Axtell and others. Because copying and distributing copyrighted material is illegal, people who post that material on YouTube without permission are more likely to be held liable.
"There certainly will be more litigation, and Google has set aside hundreds of millions in a war chest in recognition of this," says Kevin Parks, a copyright specialist with the law firm Leydig, Voit and Mayer in Chicago.
On the side of the YouTubites are those who argue that use of such copyrighted material falls into "fair use" provisions of the law.
"It's up to the courts to continually balance the rights of those who own copyrighted material with the need for society to adapt to emerging technology," says Perry Binder, assistant professor of legal studies at Georgia State University.
Copyright laws, which give exclusive legal right to a writer, editor, composer, publisher or distributor to publish, produce, sell, or distribute an artistic work are unambiguous, experts say. But how many copies of something a person may make for personal use is far more open to interpretation by judges and courts.
Mr. Binder says movie and TV industries are figuring out how to handle the more serious abuses, such as excessive downloading by casual users, profiting from the sale of a downloaded video, and having a website that links to copyrighted videos, particularly if the Web page profits from drawing traffic to the pages.