How do you spend your time on YouTube? Do you watch mostly original material from the likes of 'smosh', or do you prefer reliving clips of your favourite music videos and TV shows?

For those who fit into the latter category, you may have been somewhat alarmed by last week's announcement. Google has received a court order to hand over details of every video ever watched on YouTube, and the IP addresses of those who watched them.

The problem is that a lot of the good stuff on YouTube has not found its way there by legal means. If that content gets removed, or at least scared away, we could be left with just the homemade stuff – so much of which makes the Adam and Joe Show look like George Lucas.

Real threat?

But is the threat from Viacom real, and should we all expect to be hearing from lawyers in the next few months? Probably not, and here's why.

As always, it's a matter of copyright law, and that has become a hotly debated matter in the internet age. First and foremost, though, it's not the physical act of watching pirated content that matters, it's how it got there in the first place.

When you watch streaming content from the web, it will usually entail having a temporary local copy on your hard disk. But that is not considered an infringement in itself where it is an integral part of the viewing process.

So even if the content wasn't legally made available on the web, there is very little chance of anyone being sued for watching illicit snippets of Viacom-owned shows. Otherwise, virtually everyone who has ever accessed YouTube would be liable – and that is clearly ridiculous.

TV clips

But with copying being the main issue (it is called copyright after all), those who upload TV show clips could be in greater trouble.

Only the owner of the copyright for a particular piece of content is allowed to 'copy, issue copies, rent or lend, perform, show, play, broadcast or adapt the copyright work', according to Out-law.com. Uploading a clip grabbed from TV clearly crosses into this territory.

Recording programmes off the telly for timeshifting purposes still fits within the 'temporary local copy' case already described.

But as soon as you present clips to a larger audience you are breaking the law, and so is the distributor, if it can be argued they know what you're up to.

Litigation

Nevertheless, it's unlikely all but the most frequent uploaders will face heavy litigation. It wouldn't be cost effective for Viacom to pursue people who have only uploaded one or two items.

You still might get a nasty letter, though. For example, Getty Images has sent out thousands of demands for compensation to websites found to be using photos from its library without paying.

They have even targeted tiny charities and personal websites, asking for fees well beyond the market value of the images used.

YouTube future

Just the threat of something like this happening on YouTube could well dampen the enthusiasm of those who regularly upload.

So will this mean that YouTube will soon be full of boring sponsored messages, people's pets doing funny tricks, and teenagers posting tedious video blogs with a webcam?

Again, probably not.

Whilst the court order could well scare some people away from uploading TV comedy sketch clips, in reality YouTube isn't as driven by illegal content as the Viacom case implies.

Looking at the top 20 most viewed clips of all time on YouTube, more than half were clearly from legitimate sources. The most popular YouTube clip ever, Evolution Of Dance, was posted by its main participant, and quite a few of the Top 20 are from major record companies.

So even if the Viacom case does have a deadening effect on some types of YouTube content, there is lots of other popular content on there than just pirated clips. Not everything is user-generated is rubbish, either.

It may be hard to figure out why so many people wanted to watch a grown man cry about Britney Spears. But Evolution Of Dance is actually very funny, and that's where user-generated content is showing its true potential.