The Premier League, England’s top football division, on Friday filed a class-action lawsuit against Google and its popular video website, YouTube, claiming the companies were unlawfully distributing copyrighted broadcasts of sporting events and other materials.

In a 37-page suit filed in the Southern District of New York, attorneys representing the football league and another plaintiff, Bourne, an independent music publisher, accuse YouTube and its parent company, Google, of engaging in a “deliberate strategy” to break copyright laws.

It further alleges that the companies have “feigned blindness” by deliberately failing to implement technologies that could prevent infringing content from being available to its users and by removing protected materials only after the victims of alleged infringement agree to a licensing fee that is “low enough to be deemed satisfactory”.

Google on Friday night said the Premier League misunderstood the digital millennium copyright act, which balances the rights of copyright holders against the need to protect internet communications and content.

As a result, the company said, the lawsuit “threatens the way people legitimately exchange information, news, entertainment and political and artistic expression over the internet.”

Among materials the suit claims has been illegally infringed and are available on YouTube are 17 football matches played in April by teams including Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, and Manchester United.

The lawsuit is the latest legal challenge against YouTube, which Google acquired in October for $1.65bn.

In March, Viacom sued YouTube for copyright infringement, claiming that the site had allowed users to post thousands of clips from its MTV, Comedy Central and other networks without permission. The suit asked for more than $1bn in damages.

Google this week filed a response, asking a judge to dismiss the suit, and arguing that it represented a threat to the internet.

Executives at traditional media companies have been grappling with YouTube for several months now, with some embracing the site as a way to promote their programmes to young viewers and others seeing it as a threat to their business.

YouTube faces a tough adversary in Sean Coffey, an attorney at New York-based Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossman (BLB&G) whose fight against some of Wall Street’s biggest banks on behalf of investors in WorldCom led to an unprecedented $6bn in settlements in 2005.

BLB&G is also working with the New York-based firm Proskauer Rose.

Mr Coffey said on Friday that the primary goal of the lawsuit was to get a judge to “force YouTube to stop infringing on other people’s copyrighted works”.

While Mr Coffey said his team supported the Viacom suit, he emphasised that the Premier League was not engaging in a “leverage suit” in which it simply hoped to secure a favourable licensing contract with YouTube.

He said claims that YouTube was unable to regulate its own content were “bogus”.

“YouTube’s excuse that it is unaware of the infringement rampant on its website is reminiscent of Inspector Renault in Casablanca claiming that he was ‘shocked, shocked’ to learn that there was gambling at Rick’s – they know darn well what’s going on and this lawsuit intends to make them stop it,” he said.

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