YouTube.com is our favorite new cultural phenomenon. It has become the country's chosen place to watch funny, embarrassing and shocking videos. It is also the Internet's latest garage-to-gagillionaire story.
But as the Web site morphs from an ad hoc collection of bizarre and goofy media moments to a billion-dollar business that Google just gobbled up, it could become a target for copyright lawsuits.
Last week, YouTube reportedly started taking down clips from popular Comedy Central shows such as "South Park," "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" after the site was apparently notified the clips represented copyright infringement. The previous week, YouTube purged nearly 30,000 clips after it was informed of copyright violations by the Japanese Society for Rights of Authors Composers and Publishers. These incidents raise the question: Are the floodgates about to open? One day will the only clips posted on YouTube be those made by amateurs?
Copyright has always been an albatross for YouTube, which was recently bought by Google for the hefty sum of $1.65 billion. Nearly 60,000 new videos are loaded on YouTube every day by people from all over the world. YouTube has no direct control over what goes up before it goes up. But the site does list guidelines for people to follow (youtube.com/t/howto_copyright).
Rules of the Road
For instance, the site says, "If you taped [the clip] off of cable, videotaped your TV screen, or downloaded it from some other Web site, it is still copyrighted and requires the copyright owner's permission to distribute." And "It doesn't matter whether or not you give credit to the owner/author/songwriter -- it is still copyrighted. ... It doesn't matter that you are not selling the video for money -- it is still copyrighted. ... It doesn't matter whether or not the video contains a copyright notice -- it is still copyrighted. ... It doesn't matter whether other similar videos appear on our site -- it is still copyrighted. ... It doesn't matter if you created a video made of short clips of copyrighted content -- even though you edited it together; the content is still copyrighted."
Though these rules are explicit, their presence on the site has not deterred anyone from posting their favorite embarrassing moments and bons mots. The site's spirit of community -- the oh-my-God-you've-got-to-see-this factor -- is how video from "Saturday Night Live," "The Daily Show" and even your local newscast have popped up on the site.
But just because the videos are on the site, doesn't mean YouTube has broken the law. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, passed in 2000, largely protects Internet sites from liability and states they have little responsibility for what people post. This legislation may be the reason that although requests have come in for videos to be removed, so long as the site complies it's doubtful that anyone could successfully sue YouTube.
YouTube's main legal responsibility is only to remove clips if so requested by the rights holder. David S. Korzenik, a media attorney and law professor in New York explains, "If you are YouTube and you get a claim from a copyright owner who says, 'You guys are posting my stuff and you have no right to do so and I want you to take it down,' YouTube has a certain amount of time to investigate the claim and then they have a decision to make."
And, generally, the decision the company makes when confronted by a major media company is to remove the content. YouTube's legal jeopardy going forward would be if someone could prove that YouTube actually promotes piracy in some way. Legal experts suggest that this would be a difficult case to make.
Preventing Future Lawsuits
In recent months, YouTube has tried to inoculate itself to potential lawsuits by signing deals with major media companies, including NBC, CBS and Warner Music. The deals give YouTube the right to broadcast some clips legally, and it gives the media giants an avenue to get their content strategically exposed to the YouTube audience; nearly 100 million videos are viewed on YouTube every day.
"I think what we're seeing is a migration of the video-viewing experience from TV to the Internet," says Mark Robinson of Wired magazine. "This is the next evolution in how we watch TV." Most media companies know this, and up to this point have taken an "If we can't beat 'em, join 'em" attitude toward YouTube.
In the not-so-distant past, even officials at Comedy Central seemed to suggest they were comfortable with having their shows excerpted on YouTube. In an interview with Wired, Daily Show" Executive Producer Ben Karlin said. "If people want to take the show in various forms, I'd say go. ... How people are reacting to it, how it's being shared, how it's being discussed, all that other stuff, is absolutely beyond your ability to control."
As of now, clips of "South Park" and "The Daily Show" can still be viewed on YouTube, merely by typing the title words into the search field. Don't worry. You don't break any laws by looking.