Two Reasons Why the Viacom-YouTube Debate is Important

Just last year I wrote a little bit about why YouTube works. Since then, two major things have happened: YouTube was bought by Google, and large copyright-holding corporations finally noticed it. The almost inevitable result? Billion-dollar lawsuits.

I’ll let The Daily Show explain the situation better than I can:

YouTube Preview Image

But really, who cares?  Two multi-billion dollar companies duking it out in court surely doesn’t effect you or I.  But there are at least two reasons why it does matter.


1.  It’s not about stealing TV shows, and it’s not really about YouTube in particular.  It’s about control and availability of information.
Let me explain:  Viacom doesn’t offer all of it’s material online, but Comedy Central at least has it’s “motherload” interface.  The clip I posted above – and apologies if it has already been deleted – is available there.  They even have a little “embed” link, to help you post the clip in your blog.

Notice I didn’t use that embed link, and instead have the same clip from YouTube.  No, I’m not trying to be ironic.  I tried using the Comedy Central clip but noticed something sort of odd.  It says “This video expires 04/22/2007.”

One of the main reasons the Web is so powerful, and so important, is that it makes publishing, storing, and retrieving information cheap, fast, and easy.  Not a little cheaper, a little faster, a little easier – we are talking orders of magnitude.

In the past, there were reasons why information might disappear, or be difficult to find.  Books went out of print because someone had to actually print books.  But now, there is no longer any real excuse.  Videos don’t naturally expire on a certain date, like bologna.  Keeping the video around for a while doesn’t really cost Viacom that much, and bandwidth and storage prices are always going down.

I’m sure lots of people use YouTube just to watch TV shows without paying for them, but that’s not why YouTube is important – it is important because it makes video available for comment, by anyone, basically forever.  So when a senate candidate uses an delightfully unfamiliar racial slur, but no major news networks are around, the video still gets out.

So why should we care that clips from a network that has puppets making crank phone calls are available too?  There’s no way to cordon off the important video from the unimportant, because it’s too subjective.  In fact, Comedy Central is the perfect example – it has actually been the source for some very, very important video over the past few years.

Steven Colbert’s explanation of the concept of truthiness was the most insightful commentary on the current administration and it’s backers to be seen on any channel.  But I can’t find it on Comedy Central’s web site.  And any video site hosting it, even in the fair use context of commentary and scholarship, is likely to get a DMCA letter to take it down.

If the Viacoms of the world get their way, we will lose something new and amazing – the democratization of commentary and reference in the world of video.
2.  If Viacom wins, in the long term Viacom loses. 

Again, video clips are not bologna.  This Daily Show video expires because Viacom doesn’t understand the Internet.  The Colbert truthiness video is not immediately available for commentary because Viacom doesn’t understand the Internet.  Some stuffy old guy in a well-appointed office made this decision, and the thinking went something like this:

“Hmm, this video clip thing is hot according to CEO Fad Magazine, but I don’t fully understand how to monetize it.”  I suppose he understands enough to put a billion-dollar price tag on the copyright infringement, but not enough to actually make a billion dollars by putting video clips online.  Will this cannibalize DVD sales?  Will people stop subscribing to cable altogether?  So many scary questions!
Meanwhile, people like YouTube founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, sitting where ever they used to sit, were thinking more like this:  “Wow, we’ve done the math and the Internet has made an amazing thing possible that has never been possible before.  Let’s do it.”

Now think back to all of the biographies you’ve read about inventors, founders of major companies, scientists and engineers.  Which mentality, do you think, has driven the American economy to create such amazing amounts of wealth?  How many companies stay successful by avoiding change, becoming confused and disoriented by new possibilities, and trying to fight new technologies with lawsuits?

Viacom needs to get a clue and embrace the fact that video distribution and storage has suddenly become easier, faster and cheaper.  They don’t have to do so by letting YouTube host videos, but ignoring the lessons that YouTube is teaching the rest of the world is not a good long-term strategy.

This is important because there is a lot of money, and there are a lot of entrenched interests, on the clueless side.  These companies are sitting on top of a gold mine but more worried about putting up fences than actually digging up the gold.

I don’t really care if YouTube or Google Video or iFilm or whoever has clips of this show or that.  I’m not interested in whether they paid for them, if so how much, whatever.  If this was all just fighting over whether or not college kids can watch blurry little South Park clips for free in their dorms, we could all safely ignore it.

But this is important, and hopefully you are paying attention.

Written by Jason

Last 3 posts by Jason

  1. Yep, it’s already gone.

    S. H. Skuld
    March 24th, 2007 at 5:34 pm
  2. You got PWNED!!!! by Viacom b41tch

    Peter Rasty
    March 26th, 2007 at 9:25 pm

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