Thursday, June 30, 2011

YouTube: not the copyright YouTopia I had in mind

YouTube - rhymes with blood feud.

That's my pal, Margaret Gould Stewart - head of YouTube's user experience - explaining why copyright holders should allow their video to be published to YouTube, so as to experience new art forms, audiences, distribution channels, and revenue streams: a video Utopia, I tell you!

I've used this video on my blog and in class 100 times as a launching point of how "progressive copyright" works online. 

Hard to believe YouTube is the same company that removed my account last week for copyright infringement. My crime: uploading a 30-second clip from the rarely seen film The Promotion, which I intended to use in class as a great example of corporate culture.

It was my third infraction in over a decade of posting videos to the site, which is the magic number you need to reach in order to be removed; the other two:

1. A 30-second TV ad for the Minneapolis Star Tribune - the bankrupt newspaper that was trying to do something new by advertising a new online reporter.

I uploaded the ad without comment, because I found it interesting that the paper was employing this strategy to get readers and advertisers back. But - you guessed it - I got an angry letter from a Star Tribune lawyer demanding that I stop using "their content."

I removed it, but - hell - isn't the idea of an ad campaign that people get to see it? I promised the angry lawyer that I would never do anything to promote the Star Tribune again, and I haven't: now it's all badmouthing all the time, which appears to be the best way to make their lawyers happy. 

2. A 15-second clip from Roman Holiday - in which Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn have a passive-aggressive conversation about PR and journalism - also to use in class.

Were these cases copyright infringement? Sure. I didn't own the content, after all.

Could I argue it? Sure: I uploaded only three short clips that came into question in a dozen years of video uploads and intended to use them for educational purposes with students.

However, when YouTube (as owned by Google) removes your account, there is no system of appeal and you lose not only the offending videos, but all of your videos. So, goodbye to The Promotion clip and my students' stand-up comedy and improv videos along with it.

I've got the video, you've got the software: let's make lots of money

There has got to be a better way, and YouTube already has it: software that prevents users from uploading content that they don't own and/or that has been blocked by the copyright holder.

I once attempted to upload a clip from the famous Bob Newhart Show episode where he learns how media relations works the hard way. When the video finished uploading, YouTube's software instantly recognized it as Bob Newhart and blocked the content, so it couldn't be uploaded. Fair enough.

Another time, I uploaded the famous fence-painting scene from the 1973 Tom Sawyer musical (featuring a pint-sized Jodie Foster), which is great for showing how corporate entities (Tom) manipulate supply and demand to screw over the little people (the fence painters).

This time, YouTube said it was cool that I uploaded it, but that it wouldn't be available in some parts of the world. When I clicked on "some parts of the world," I found out that it meant "the entire world" - however, the video was still there for me to watch when I signed in. Fair enough.

Last year, when I uploaded Devo's performance at the Minnesota Zoo, YouTube told me that the song was owned by Universal (I think), but that Universal was cool with it as long as it could monetize the video. Fair enough.

I never monetized a single YouTube video, so I never made a dime off of anything I uploaded. However, the copyright holder earning money off of a video I upload seems to me to be the very definition of "progressive copyright."

YouTube's upload policy: wink, wink. 

So: YouTube has and uses the technology that can stop people from uploading stuff they don't own. The problem: if it stopped everyone from uploading video they don't own, there wouldn't be a YouTube.

Ninety per cent of the content on YouTube is uploaded by people who don't own it, but who are honest fans of the material. Everyone knows: if you want original video, you go to Vimeo. If you want to see the clip of Ricky Gervais visiting Steve Carell on the Office, you go to YouTube - where Sparky11771 - not NBC - has posted it.

The hypocrisy: YouTube (Google) attracts millions of viewers and makes zillions of dollars a year selling advertising on "pirated" video uploaded to its site, yet pretends to be against it by warning users to not do the very thing they see when they visit the site.

The website that punishes its users for its own vague and inconsistent policies is the website that needs to get a grip.


  1. Great post! I've got 43 videos in my channel and count about 15 potential copyright violations. (Don't tell anyone!) I've got one strike, which only came this month when I uploaded a Glee Live performance from Minneapolis.
    Why was I at Glee Live you ask? As my wife.

  2. Ha, ha! Yeah: you can run afoul pretty quickly. Make sure you disconnect your YouTube email from any other Google services you have - once that account is inactive, it's inactive across Google. Boo.

  3. There are tons of people uploading original content to YouTube, with some making a good chunk of change from their ads. Youtube is trying to encourage more of this and less of the Family Guy clips, but it's slow going. My point is, if you stopped people from uploading content they didn't own, there would still be plenty of original content on YouTube. I have over 200 videos on my channel and the only ones that have been flagged for copyright infringement are music-related ones, which they just monetized. To me it sounds like your first two strikes came at a time when people didn't really understand this whole online video thing, which to me means they shouldn't count.
    Oh, and you can get your videos back. I know someone who lost over 100 videos and got them restored.


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