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?