Tuesday, February 06, 2007

YouTube and copyright - Who is the greediest?

A lot of people are discussing the latest tiff involving copyrighted material and YouTube. Viacom (parent company of MTV and Comedy Central, among others) have issued YouTube with an order to take down 100,00 videos they claim are infringing their copyrights. A lot of media are reporting this as a black eye for YouTube but I'll take a wild guess and say the Google/YouTube attitude can be summed up as "see if we fucking care." It's hard to imagine the removal of 100,00 videos having much impact on a site that sees around a million video uploads every day.

BoingBoing do a good job of pointing out that this action goes beyond obnoxious to the point where it may well be illegal. There are a lot of competing forces and motivations at work here but it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the dominant one, for pretty much all parties, is greed.

The most obviously greedy parties are the film/TV/music publishing conglomerates who seem to think that it's their god-given right to be paid again and again and again for the same thing. Although this isn't really the issue here, it seriously pisses me off that it isn't enough when we, the consumers, pay for a legal copy of something. These companies think they have the right to dictate what we can do with something after we purchase it. What devices we can play our legally purchased entertainment on. Where we can enjoy it. Fuck these companies. They know they can't beat criminal pirates and profiteers so they fuck over the soft targets - us.

The one that that gives me a sense of satisfaction is that the actions of these companies are so brain-bendingly wrong that they are essentially committing a slow and painful suicide. Ask any marketing maven what's the best sort of advertising and they'll tell you: word of mouth. Actual recommendation from real people who truly love a product. They spend millions faking this. And who is the most common target of the legal actions taken by these companies? The most passionate evangelising fans they supposedly want so much.

There are a lot of complexities to the situation, not least a fear that many companies express: if we don't actively seek to protect our property from everyone then we'll have no defence against the really serious abuses of criminals who are straight up stealing and making bootlegs for commercial gain. The fact that this reasoning is neither logical nor legally accurate (it's a conflation of trademark dilution with copyright - a legal fallacy) doesn't seem to bother the companies in question.

The most flattering thing I can say about these companies is that they're confused and scared. They don't understand what's happening and they're scared of being left behind. Google have come along and invented (or at least improved and popularised) a whole new industry - ad supported targeted search - that's making them billions. Content owners of various stripes think to themselves:

"Hey, Google couldn't sell ads if people weren't looking for our content. They're making all those billions off our property! I want those billions!"

Note that I didn't say content creators. While many content creators are similarly up in arms it's the big publishing companies that are behind this. The actual creators of content rarely make much money. Of the billions made worldwide by the entertainment industries, probably less than 1% goes to the people who actually created the content.

Google (for example) is taking nothing away from these companies. They are opening up potentially huge and lucrative new markets. Revenue streams beyond the wildest dreams of these greedy fucks. But they can't look beyond "someone else is making money and I want it."

To be fair, there's abundant evidence of considerable greed on Google's part. Their business is built on the fact that other people have created content that users want to find. They're making billions off this fact. And any smart businessperson would want to keep as much of that for themselves as possible. And steadfastly maintaining the line "we're not making money from your content, we're making money from our technology" is ethically a grey area at best.

Plus, the arrogance repeatedly displayed by Google has to be pretty grating. We're smart, you're dumb, do what we say and everything will be all right. Even when they're right, that sort of talk pisses people off. I can imagine a conversation at GooTube proceeding like the following exchange:

Entertainment Company: You're making money from our content.

GooTube: We're giving you free advertising. You don't understand how this generation thinks. They don't watch TV, the go online for entertainment. We're delivering the next generation to you, you should be thanking us.

EC: But you should share all the money you're making from advertising with us. You wouldn't be making that money without us!

GT: Your content is a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions of videos on our site. We don't need your content, you need us.

EC: But people are seeing our stuff without paying! We want more money!

GT: We've changed our mind - you pay us for the privilege of being on our site.

EC: That's it! We demand you remove all our copyrighted material!

GT: Whatever. Don't let the door smack you on the ass on the way out.

And to bring it back to YouTube, there's greed of a different sort being displayed by the users who upload copyrighted material. It's the greed for attention. For all the high-minded talk of community and sharing I think it's fair to say users who upload quality content created by other people are hoping for some reflected coolness to rub off on themselves. They want people to watch what they've put up and think they're cool for having posted it. This is a relatively small sin but I think people need to be honest about their motivations.

For my part, I'm really greedy for attention for my original work. So I'd be really happy if all these TV, movie and music clips fucked right off. I really think YouTube is untouchable on this front. Maybe I'm too close to the whole "community" part of YouTube to see the importance of these clips to the continued health of the site. The most popular "channels" are either original content creators or officially sponsored corporate ones. Maybe usage would die off if every unauthorised clip was taken down but I'd doubt it.

The thing is, Google have at least as much money to fight this cause as anyone who's going to come after them. Plus, Google are the experts in this field - the entertainment companies are started from a position of ignorance. Greed, ignorance and huge egos - what a combination. The big entertainment companies have fucked actual entertainers and audiences for years.

The time may have come for them to realise that it they don't make nice and hold hands it will be their turn to bend over and take it.

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