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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]w9CRD1COCAY[/youtube] 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.

Finally we can Blame 9/11 on Gay Marriage

It has taken five years and two wars, but finally, author Dinesh D’Souza has found the real cause of the 9-11 terrorist attacks.  Saddam Hussien?  Nope.  Lax airport security?  Sorry.  Osama bin Laden and the extreme religious conservatives who plotted and carried out the attacks?  Not so much. The real culprit is gay marriage and Fear Factor.  D'Souza explained on the Colbert Report. [youtube]rqIXBRTwcUI[/youtube] Now, some might say that advocating that we become more like the terrorists in order to avoid terrorist attacks is sort of like giving in.  But that's just silly.  Let me explain why with a simple analogy everyone can understand : Imagine you are back in grade school and out of no where another kid hits you in the head with a rock, then says: "That's for all the times you came over to my house and broke our yard gnomes.  Also, your T-shirt has GI Joe on it and that means you are an idiot because Thundercats are obviously better than GI Joe and Panthro rules!" How should you respond?  Now my first thought would be to go over to a totally different kid's house and start breaking his yard gnomes in revenge.  But it turns out, the best course of action is to stand up, brush the dirt and little rock pieces out of your hair, and tell your attacker: "Of course, you are right, Thudercats is way better than GI Joe, though I must point out that Lion-o is truly our lord and savior.  This shirt is a hand-me-down from my brother, I blame him for the whole situation!" That way, the disagreement is cleared up immediately, and instead of a schoolyard enemy you now have an ally to help you plot the brutal beating of your own brother. Isn't it funny how things like this end up?  It truly takes a world-class intellect like D'Souza to figure things like this out, but once he says it, it so obvious!  It's just like when the Wright brothers had their first flight, and the next day everyone walked around saying, "all it took for man to fly was an airplane!  Why didn't I think of that?"

Washington DC: Taxation Without Representation

One of the most shameful facts about the United States of America has been in the news lately.  No, I'm not talking about the Iraq war, teen pregnancy, urban poverty, or even election fraud.  I'm talking about the fact that U.S. citizens who live in Washington DC have no Senators and no Congressmen. DC has more people than Wyoming, and almost as many as Vermont.  So why are they treated like felons?  The problem, at least right now, is that a majority of DC residents are black. Now, this isn't old school Jim Crow racism; the real issue is that blacks tend to vote overwhelmingly for the democrats.  Giving DC the vote would be giving the Democrats two Senators and a member in the House. This has been in the news lately because of a recent plan to give DC one representative, although it looks like that plan is now on hold. The idea was to make a trade:  DC would get a representative and Utah would get one as well.  Maybe it was just a waste of time and money, but there was some thought that Utah could snag their new representative if they moved fast enough. There were a lot of little problems with the plan, but my main criticism would be that the situation is ridiculous, and we should amend the Constitution immediately to give DC full representation in Congress.  This should have been done years ago. In a sense, it is election fraud.  Despite our shamefully low voter turnout, most Americans are aware of other problems with recent elections - the hanging chads in 2000, the dodgy record of certain electronic voting machines, etc.  Very few have ever heard that Washingtonians aren't afforded the same rights the rest of us have long enjoyed.  Those who have heard it in high school government class have long forgotten.   Stop 10 people on the street, and you'll be lucky if even one knows what you are talking about. Everyone living in our nation's capital, an estimated 582,049 people, is treated like a second-class citizen.  They have only been able to vote for President since the 23rd Amendment was passed in 1961.  But they have never been able to vote for their own Senators or members of the House of Representatives. Now keep in mind this is a country that began started a revolution rallying around the slogan, "no taxation without representation."  You'll see that slogan on the DC license plates, although not the plates on the current President's limo. While President Bush sends our troops around the world to spread democracy (with dubious results), he and his party are unwilling to spread a little right outside their doorstep, and the Democrats are doing little to help. So if this is news to you, spread the word - perhaps if this skeleton were out of the closet, we might be able to act responsibly and fix this problem. [youtube]1pYQGaYyDgs[/youtube]

Comedy Central gets it – Colbert and Stewart back on YouTube

A few days ago news broke that Comedy Central had requested YouTube take down a bunch of video clips from their shows, including The Daily Show, South Park, and The Colbert Report. They have the right to do so under copyright law and the DMCA, of course, but the fact that they hadn't bothered for such a long time made me think that maybe they understood why YoutTube works.

Did the takedown notice mean they didn't get it after all? Were their lawyers just procrastinating? It looks like they do get it, after all - YouTube and Viacom have reached a licensing agreement.

Now I'm not arguing that Comedy Central and other content producers aren't within their rights to demand their clips be taken down, or that watching commercial content for free is a basic human right, or anything like that. But I will argue that in most cases, they shouldn't.

First, linkrot is bad. Every time someone searches YouTube or reads a blog entry and the video is no longer available, you've made a mistake. Want to drive traffic and attention to your content? At the very least, put it somewhere and leave it there for a while. Make sure it has a stable URL, so that if 10,000 bloggers want to show it to their readers they won't have to rip and host video themselves, can find and post it easily, and are driving traffic and veiwership data directly to one place.

This is the long tail. This is why the web works so well, and why YouTube and similar sites work so much better than weird embedded or streaming media that doesn't really fit on the web. Not only can 10,000 bloggers link to it on day 1, but people will still be running across Stephen Colbert coining the word truthiness a week, month, or year later. Use the web to do things you can't with broadcast TV.

Second, providing or allowing bits of content out for free on a regular basis can be much better than advertising. Here's some anecdotal evidence. There are only a few reasons why I might get cable or satellite again, and two of them are Comedy Central and Cartoon Network. When I moved and didn't bother getting cable hooked up, for a little while I really missed The Daily Show. Months later, when I started seeing links to clips on YouTube on blogs, emailed by friends, etc., it reminded me how much I missed the Daily Show and I got interested in the Colbert Report as well. This has made me reconsider getting cable.

Now, surely content producers like Comedy Central can't just sit idly by while some web site makes money off their content. They have two options which take advantage of the web and don't destroy value:

1) Actually compete. Improve video offerings on comedycentral.com so they function like YouTube clips. They would still not have the critical mass of YouTube but at least writers, bloggers and emailers could still link to them and they are still a real part of the web. Provide community tools, make uploading easy, and toss in a contest to get the best user-contributed videos run on the station and you might be able to beat YouTube at their own game.

2) License with Youtube. This is a little tricky, but it is possible to work out a contract that benefits both sides. One of the annoyances of YouTube is inconsistency, so official Daily Show and Colbert Report clips from Comedy Central would benefit YouTube. In exchange, Comedy Central gets free video hosting (not a bad deal), access to Youtube's viewership (including possible listings in the top videos), and access to YouTube's community. I still think Google will fix video ads just like they fixed online ads, so this could be a money making venture for both.

Viacom and Comedy Central have decided to go with option 2, but how many producers go with neither option, and just send out take down requests?