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It’s About the Copyright, Stupid

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The Japanese content providers request that YouTube take down nearly 30,000 videos (who had to sit through that lot?) comes at the end of copyright week.

Copyright issues have been prevalent and they've been tied up with issues of economic viability and the role of free upload/download sites that currently dominate the web, making this the number one issue in web economics. Behind it lies the viability of YouTube, Google, and independent video production.

Let's try to unpick the issues.

The first is this: Is the online videocast market viable? Robert Scoble (see link above) today explained that his own vidcasts are not – not yet anyway – economically viable. The cost of creating and streaming his videos far outstrips the revenue potential right now. The cost just of delivery alone outstrips revenue potential.

What does this say about YouTube? That by and large its viability rests on video that is costing nothing to its participants. That does not always mean that the videos themselves have cost nothing. Pirated video undoubtedly has a cost — borne by someone else. Hence we see a request for 30,000 videos to be taken down. So much is obvious.

While that's been going on, a couple of authors, Andrew keen and Charles Cooper, have been berated by respected and careful critics for daring to say that the current wave of the web is built on theft.

So let's summarise so far. Luminaries like Robert Scoble cannot make video on the web work economically, even with their advertising and audience pull. The economics are against him.

YouTube is assumed to be worth $1.65 billion yet it relies on pirated content to a degree we cannot ascertain. What we can conjecture is that it is not viable without pirated content.

Raising this theft issue invites ridicule — something here doesn't add up.

Copyright also emerged this week as an issue for top flight talent like the Beatles and in actions taken by the music industry against 8,000 illegal filesharers.

The other side of the coin is that many media enterprises don't respect authors' copyright. Copyright abuse by newspapers in Europe is not uncommon. When it applies to freelance writers there is a wrongful assumption that a newspaper can sell and resell in the print and onlline syndication market without reverting to the content producer.

What we're seeing is an exercise in power. Powerful media can squash the rights of individuals. On the other hand, when their rights are challenged, they come over heavy.

We tend to take the "technology first" view of this — we have the technology to share files so we should; likewise newspapers can exploit the technology of databases to continually resell content, so they should. But rights are trampled on in the process. There's no point in ignoring that. It's like assuming vidcasting is viable. It seems to be until you try it without a loss maker called YouTube.

At the same time it's clear YouTube has a viable model open to it. It involves:

  1. Providing a high quality video hosting service for a fee or on ad revenue share.
  2. Providing ad sales and sharing enough of those sales to make vidcasting viable.
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About Haydn

  • Haydn, your analysis rests largely on the assumption that copyrights are real and legitimate property rights, which they are not. Simply using words like “piracy” to label the sharing of a file does not in reality make it stealing.

    Modern American copyright law is largely just utterly illegitimate corporate welfare that by rights should be thrown out by our courts, if the whole government was not in the pockets of corporate media interests. By rights- by constitutional logic and our historic standards, 50 year old Elvis and Sinatra records should long since absolutely be in the public domain such that fair use wouldn’t even be coming up.

    Beyond the ridiculous and unconscionable extensions of copyright, most of the YouTube stuff looks like it should fall under non-commercial fair use, even for the more recent stuff. It’s not involving people SELLING pieces of video.

    More practically, how are the YouTube and p2p sharing of videos costing copyright holders revenue? It’d be an understandable complaint if someone is posting whole recent movies, and now you can just download Harry Potter rather than buying a video. But that’s mostly not what they’re talking about.

    Corporate greedheads seem to think that they should get paid anytime anyone sees or even thinks about anything that anybody ever associated with them has ever, ever done. They use semantic tricks to fool the gullible with nonsense declarations of “intellectual property rights” – as if they own our minds and computers. Then they buy congressmen to give their stealing the impramatur of law.

    None of that, however, means that they’re right, or that indulging their desire to control my hard drive is legitimate or necessary.

  • Hi AL and thanks for commenting – what about situations like one I allude to on my blog – the assumption by newspapers that they can take my stuff, and that of many freelance writers, and sell it around the world without compensating me? I’m sure there are other situations like that – that’s where I think the debate needs to go as wel las teh headline cases.

  • Bob Jones

    Media companies should have full right over their content, if they want to control it to the strictest degree fine – its not a legal issue.

    Sure, YouTube might just be made up of clips – but it is costing money, when clips of (for example) The Colbert Report end up on YouTube, they drive traffic away from ComedyCentrals site where they could make a profit for the show they spent money on, now does it really matter? Maybe not, you could mount arguments about how it helps the show or its good for it – fine, whatever, but the law states that authors (or in this case, distributors) have the rights to control the distribution of their work.

  • what about situations like one I allude to on my blog – the assumption by newspapers that they can take my stuff, and that of many freelance writers, and sell it around the world without compensating me?

    In academia, “stuff” is used by other authors all the time, without compensating the original author. Academics see their works as part of a greater whole, ie that they produce a “brick” of knowledge, that rests upon previously laid bricks, and on which further bricks will be laid in turn. If the work is proven wrong, then dependent works must be re-addressed. Bloggers generally aren’t so devoted to higher truth, or willing to accept scrutiny; as such, I hardly see how they deserve more respect.

    No palms need be greased to use another academic’s work. Instead, authors are cited. The penalties for failure to correctly cite, especially if done deliberately, are harsh, and need no legislation to enforce them. In the world of blogs, discovering plagiarism is even easier. A Google search will show up a plagiarized blog entry, unless it has been well rephrased. Since the entries are timestamped, proving plagiarism is easy. Conversely, correct citing is trivial, the quoter only needs to link to the original author’s blog, and everyone is (or ought to be) happy.

    Financially academics themselves do quite well out of their cited papers. Each citation adds to the academic’s reputation, which allows him/her to (in an aggregated sense) get more research funding, get more book contracts, get tenure, get a higher salary, move to an institution with more prestige, etc etc. Bloggers, conversely, do well out of links. They get banner ad revenue, they can get publication offers, etc etc.

    So, if your blog is linked to or mentioned in a newspaper, with proper citation, you ought to be thankful for the extra traffic brought your way, not demanding payment from the ones who did you that favor. You’ve only been wronged if you’ve not been cited.

    As for the issue of new methods of content distribution affecting existing copyright law: that’s good. Existing copyright law is a nail in the feet of technology. We need something like a compulsory licensing regime where the licensing fee is pegged to the declared income from the work in the previous year, and a greatly reduced public domain entry time (say five years) which may be re-extended only by annual licencing payments, again pegged to the declared income, to compensate the state for its work involved in protecting your investment (say $1/$10,000 declared).