Waltzing around the piracy issue
YOUTUBE IS dreaming of a warm, fuzzy future in which erstwhile video pirates clink steins with media CEOs -- the viewing needs of the one at last aligned with the pay schedules of the other -- and boozily toast the technology that changed it all, back in ’08. Yes, after years of work, scientists in Silicon Valley finally are deploying computer systems intelligent enough to watch online videos -- so humans don’t have to. Huzzah!
Until now, copyright owners wishing to defend their rights online have had to employ real live people to seek out and neutralize infringing material. Pirate hunting is neither a job you want to have nor one you want to pay someone to do; trying to stamp out copied content is a Sisyphean task, minus the exercise. Even if you manage to find an unauthorized copy buried in the Web’s endless digital storehouse, odds are another will materialize before the first one’s bytes are cold.
But rest easy, humans. Now that the machines have arrived, feelings and fatigue are no longer concerns. Sophisticated “fingerprinting” systems can dispassionately speed-watch a thousand clips in the time it would take a human to watch one. If these copyright robots spot anything that matches an item in their vast memory banks of protected content, a red light goes on and the nasty little copy drops into video purgatory, forever.
Unless, as YouTube is hoping, owners have a change of heart. Some early adopters of its Video ID system, the company said, are doing just that. By “claiming” the user-submitted copy of their content, they effectively take ownership of it and from then on can use it to glean demographic information about who’s watching or even to sell advertising alongside the video and divvy up the proceeds with YouTube.
Last month, Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt announced that Lionsgate was considering a promotion in which it would actually invite users to upload clips from its “Dirty Dancing” movie. The studio would then use Video ID to find and claim the fan-submitted excerpts.
Sometimes eager fans can beat companies to uploading their own content. In the case of Electronic Arts’ WarHammer online game, a YouTube user uploaded a clip of the game’s trailer more than a year before the company did. The unauthorized version has been viewed nearly 800,000 times, whereas EA’s version has only 70,000 views. EA opted to claim the clip rather than remove it, and now a big ad sits next to what was once a pirated video, feeding revenue to the firm.
“Why kill off that really valuable stream that’s connected with the users?” asked YouTube Product Manager David King. “It doesn’t make any sense -- this is simply multiplying your distribution points.”
YouTube says that more than half of the 300 partners that signed up to use its system have, to its surprise, been choosing to leave clips intact and even to “monetize” them -- the Web world’s pet word for converting content into cash.
Brad Auerbach, an executive at Hewlett-Packard who has worked on digital innovation and anti-piracy projects with numerous major media companies, said he could understand the system’s appeal for copyright owners. “I think this is pretty clever because what you’re at least allowing the content provider to do is continue its genetic imperative to control if, when and how its content is being monetized.”
On paper, it can almost seem as if a copyright revolution is brewing. Pirates look less like scoundrels and more like ambassadors as they share their favorite content and evangelize on behalf of the owner. Likewise, the content functions both as an advertisement for itself (as with the EA game trailer) and as a source of revenue.
A similar dynamic governs social news sites such as Digg.com, where unpaid users compete to draw the most eyeballs to their favorite online news stories, videos and photos. Sites such as latimes.com are not complaining about the growing waves of monetizable traffic Digg is sending their way free.
Who wouldn’t buy into a model like that?
I called around to major media companies, thinking everyone would be excited to talk about this equitable and innovative solution. But no one seemed to want to discuss it. CBS declined to comment, as did Viacom (perhaps understandably, given its $1-billion lawsuit against YouTube).
Although content from Fremantle Media (“American Idol”) and World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. often pops up on YouTube, neither company said they had anything to contribute. Even EA, an early adopter of the technology, did not return a string of e-mails and phone calls -- all the more strange considering that YouTube offered a direct contact there.
YouTube also recommended I contact NBC Universal for its thoughts. But when I reached the conglomerate’s general counsel, Rick Cotton, he didn’t seem to have heard about any revolution. Far from praising the potential of the tools to allow for more sharing and monetizing of user-uploaded content, Cotton said the chief value of video identification was in “the contribution the technology can make to managing copyrighted material that protects the interest of the owner.”
As far as harnessing the power of user-uploaded (read: unauthorized) content, Cotton emphasized that NBC Universal already has both NBC.com and Hulu.com -- a joint venture with News Corp -- as ad-supported destination sites for its content. For third-party sites, including YouTube, the company blocks everything except an occasional promotional clip. “We are highly unlikely to want to permit whole episodes on YouTube,” Cotton said.
I asked YouTube for the list of companies that were using the Video ID system so I might reach at least one company that was jazzed about it. YouTube declined.
For good measure, I also asked how many videos were being “monetized” every day. Hundreds? Thousands? No comment.
With half a dozen companies declining to comment, another offering the faintest of praise and YouTube being generally reluctant to offer hard details about who’s using the system and how much, I couldn’t find much reality to back up the fantasy of an approaching truce in the copyright wars. One thing I’m pretty sure of, though, is that more content than ever is being quickly and efficiently removed from YouTube. Which is one kind of progress, I suppose.