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Last Updated: Friday, 29 September 2006, 09:51 GMT 10:51 UK
Watching the future unfold online
Hugely popular video site YouTube is adding new features that may help the record companies and regular columnist Bill Thompson thinks the changes are a mistake.

Viewer watching YouTube, AP
The YouTube video-sharing site is hugely popular
Mark Cuban doesn't think much of video-sharing site YouTube or its prospects for growth. Speaking to a group of advertisers in New York Mr Cuban argued that YouTube will eventually be "sued into oblivion" because of copyright breaches.

Mr Cuban may have his own reasons for wanting to dismiss YouTube, he owns a high-definition TV channel, but he is certainly right when he points to the large number of videos available on YouTube which seem to violate someone's rights.

If you want to see snippets from US TV shows not broadcast here, music videos or even concert footage then it's the place to go.

He isn't the only one who sees trouble coming for the service. Doug Morris, chief executive of Universal Music Group, has said that YouTube and social networking site MySpace, "owe us millions of dollars", and it seems likely that he has plans to collect. Other content providers are no doubt thinking the same way.

YouTube says it wants to work with copyright holders. It recently signed a deal with Warner Music which will put Warner videos on the site legitimately and is also in discussion with other content owners.

Sound check

As part of the deal with Warner, YouTube is developing a system that will make it easier for rights holders to identify material that has been uploaded to the site without permission and have it removed.

Real change requires something more than fine-tuned rhetoric and worthy publications. It requires a change of practice, a shift in the default assumptions that people make when they unthinkingly approach an issue.
Bill Thompson
This involves a technology called "audio fingerprinting", analysing the soundtrack to every video and checking it against a library of known content to see if it's in copyright.

It's the same technology used by Shazam, which lets you call a premium rate number and play a song over your mobile, texting you its title.

The problem with this approach is that it seems to be giving the record industry - and presumably the movie industry too once we have "video fingerprinting" - everything it is asking for from YouTube.

Anyone who takes a song and lip-syncs to it, or does a crazy dance, will find their home video summarily removed from the site, whether or not what they were doing with it might be considered a parody or fair use.

And once the mechanisms of control are in place, where will they stop?

YouTube will end up like the TiVo video recorder, which started out as a simple alternative to the VCR but has become more and more limited as rights holders demand more restrictions on copying, saving or even fast-forwarding through ads.

Battle royal

Giving the content cartel everything it wants may well keep the lawyers away, but it may also destroy the value of the site. It legitimises corporate blackmail and may even help to persuade legislators that the copyright system isn't broken enough to need fixing, letting them ignore other approaches.

Sir Cliff Richard, PA
Sir Cliff has backed a campaign to extend royalty periods
One such approach is Creative Commons, a global project which tries to make copyright and licensing a lot simpler and clearer so that sharing and creative re-use are encouraged.

Counterpoint, the British Council's think tank on cultural relations, has just published a book about it which tries to encourage publishers and others to take a more flexible approach to copyright.

The book was written by a friend of mine, Rosemary Bechler, so I can't claim to be objective about its content, but whether or not Creative Commons really is a long-term solution matters less than the fact it offers an alternative to the hardline assertion of rights which we see from the record industry today.

Rosemary's book will be read by lots of people, because the British Council is good at promoting things, but it's unlikely to change people's minds. Those who already agree with have their views reinforced and will feel slightly smug at having got it right.

Those who disagree, like Adam Singer from the UK's music collection societies who once described Creative Commons as "chainsaw juggling for under fives" will, even if they bother reading to the end, dismiss it as another case of special pleading from intellectuals who don't understand the reality of the record or film industry.

The same fate awaits Richard Dawkins new book about religion, The God Delusion, which I have just finished reading. As a committed atheist myself I greatly enjoyed it and found much to support me in my position, but I know that no-one who has faith in a supernatural deity will be converted by it.

Danger man

Real change requires something more than fine-tuned rhetoric and worthy publications. It requires a change of practice, a shift in the default assumptions that people make when they unthinkingly approach an issue.

Tivo, AP
Newer versions of TiVo have more limits placed on what they can do
At the moment the copyright holders have the popular will on their side because of the general elision of "property" with "intellectual property" that means even Cliff Richard gets a sympathetic ear when he argues that his warblings in a studio 50 years ago should belong to him forever.

Few people stand up and point out that he only got any royalties at all because the law offered him a deal - a brief period of exclusivity in return for our eventual right to use your work as we see fit - which he was happy enough to accept at the time.

The real danger is that YouTube's attempts to divert the legal barrage heading its way from the record studios will simply reinforce the current perception of copyright as a strongly-enforceable property right instead of seeing it as a deal between society and creative artists, one which should benefit both sides.

Given that YouTube is spending millions of dollars a month on bandwidth to give us all those videos for free, it's a shame it didn't to use a few days worth of network money to pay some lawyers to argue that lip-syncing to a Justin Timberlake song and posting the result is a form of fair use and therefore completely legitimate.

Or that posting segments of a news story on YouTube is no different from the accepted practice in newspapers of using screenshots from the TV to illustrate stories - without asking for permission or paying for the privilege.

But by compromising so completely with the content cartel YouTube is passing up a chance to shape the common understanding of copyright in the digital age, and that's a shame.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet


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