Google is in behind-the-scenes talks with film and music studios trying to make newly acquired video-sharing Web site YouTube a gold mine, rather than a lawsuit-generating black hole.
While some analysts questioned the sanity of Google buying YouTube in a US$1.65-billion stock deal in October, Internet insiders and online rights lawyers contend that Google is shrewdly maneuvering on solid ground.
"The Internet offers real opportunities for media companies to reach a wider, global audience and to interact more directly with users," Google said in response to reporters' questions on Friday. "Google is always talking to potential partners about how to make the most of the opportunities provided by the net."
Billionaire Mark Cuban was among those who predicted Google would be pounded with lawsuits by the owners of videos, films, music and television shows in clips freely uploaded to YouTube by users.
On the day the Mountain View, California, online search powerhouse bought superstar start-up YouTube it also announced deals with CBS, Sony, BMG, Vivendi Universal Music and Warner Group to feature their videos on the Internet.
Google is in talks with other media content owners and has reportedly offered some studios cash up front for permission to put their videos online.
A number of studios have contacted Google to explore ways to cash-in on their shows, films or songs becoming Internet sensations.
Google can shield itself from lawsuits by taking down copyrighted videos after the owners complain, according to attorney Jason Schultz with the Electronic Freedom Foundation which specializes in online rights.
"I don't think Google has to strike deals with anyone given the law and the way they are set up," Schultz said. "They can scoop up everything they want and the people who own things can opt out."
"If the law was that they had to make sure all the content was OK they would grind to a halt; there would be no Google," he said.
Amateurs exacerbate copyright woes by weaving "protected content" such as songs or video snippets into submissions, said David Sohn, staff counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology. YouTube has not been taken to court regarding copyrighted material.
A potential chink in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act armor protecting YouTube was said to be that the law bars websites from profiting from the unauthorized material even if it is taken down as requested.
Google reaching out to media companies was more likely a campaign to extend opportunity instead of a desperate bid to forestall litigation, according to Schultz.
"The benefit getting overlooked is that all copyright holders have to do is send a letter or an e-mail and their stuff gets taken out," Schultz said. "That is much cheaper than going to court."
On Thursday, YouTube removed videos of US National Basketball Association team games after the league made a formal complaint.
In Germany, the national football league indicated it was looking into whether Google and YouTube were violating its exclusive rights to game distribution by showing clips of play online.
A week earlier, YouTube had to delete user-contributed videos of programs from Viacom's US cable channel Comedy Central, including the popular Colbert Report and South Park.
An organization representing copyright holders in Japan asked YouTube to block access to approximately 30,000 video clips.
"Google is clearly trying to get ahead of the wave," principal analyst Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group in Silicon Valley said of discussions the company was having with copyright holders. "The do have deep pockets, but no company has unlimited pockets and the whole goal here is to provide content to users."
Among the risks faced by Google is that if it changes YouTube too much, notoriously nomadic Internet users will migrate elsewhere for video clips.
"It makes sense to try to convince the movie industry to let this thing go and the movie industry really should let this thing go," Enderle said. "There is mutual interest. You'd think they'd want people sending movie trailers to all their friends."
More than 100 million video clips are viewed daily at YouTube, which was launched 18 months ago in San Bruno, California. Google continues to operate its own such website, Google Video.
The company was expected to apply its expertise at generating revenue from online advertising to YouTube.
YouTube supporters point out that most of the videos uploaded to the website are original works by amateurs who gain online fame for stunts such as mixing Mentos mints with Coca-Cola, or making parodies of songs.