Thursday, October 26, 2006

YouTube Future – Napsterization or Brave New World?

It was as clear as the writing on the wall. Almost as the ink was drying on the signatures on the Google/YouTube deal, content companies across the world were sharpening their knives in anticipation while dialing their lawyers with the other hand!

NetResults, a company representing the rights of Formula 1, Australian Open Tennis and others, is the latest to identify over 1000 videos which it demands be removed from YouTube (with another 10,000 to follow). This follows the Japan Society for Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers (Jasrac) forced YouTube to remove some 30,000 videos from its archives.

This is despite YouTube moving to limit the length of the videos to 10 minutes earlier in 2006.

Youtube has already looked at deals with CBS and the labels – BMG & Universal – whereby the owners of content get copyright protection as well as automated software to trap copyright violations.

There are 2 likely outcomes of this. The first is that content owners get all huffy and demand that their content be removed. This is the initial response of most content owners or their representatives – as in the case of NetResults. This needs to get classified in the “really-bad-move-which-shows-we-haven’t-learn’t-anything-from -Napster-and-the-music-industry” section of our idea bank. There is a character in Mahabharat (the great Indian epic) who cannot easily be killed in battle because every drop of blood that falls on the ground creates another incarnation. In the same way, you can expect a hundred underground file sharing and video sharing sites to pop up, increasingly hosted in remote countries, where the legal process is slow at best and copyright is a grey area. To be followed by annual releases by industry analysts on the billions of dollars of lost revenue.

The second possible outcome is that content users will stop trying to fight the dying of light and recognize that content sharing on the web is here to stay as sure as night follows the day. They will then focus on how to exploit this rather than how to stop it. A starting point is the sharing of advertising revenue. Rather than demand that the content be removed, they should negotiate for a much higher percentage of advertising generated by the content.

Of course we’ll get both kinds of responses and some in the middle. But its telling that the music companies who have suffered in the Napster saga have been quick to get to the ad-sharing model.

There is an issue of right and wrong here, which I’ve sidestepped so far. In our current framework of thinking copyright theft is wrong. And I believe this. However, in any society, the majority defines the “acceptable” behaviour and it’s the deviant who is seen as a criminal. Laws follow majority thinking. So in due course, I expect that the legal framework on content protection will shift subtly but surely to reflect the views of the majority, whatever it might be at the time. Remember there was a time when “witchcraft” was wrong and punishable by death. And carrying fire-arms without license was once perfectly legal in many societies but is a criminal offence today. Hosting pirated content was deemed a crime recently, irrespective of whether the content was put there by somebody else or by the hosting entity.

It will be interesting to see if the YouTube story follows the lose-lose model of the Napster saga or creates a brave new world of content monetization.


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