YouTube, your copyright and Google

This story has everything: big bucks, big user numbers, big promise, big risk, big buzz, big deal. There's even one video satirizing another prominent YouTube blogger and asking about users' opinions of the Google deal for YouTube.

Those intrepid mavens at Google clearly think, or hope, they can deal with one realm of uncertainty: What about copyrighted material?

Today, the forty most popular YouTube videos included the usual mix of home videos, cartoons, personal vlogs and copyrighted videos from major TV networks. Eight of them were soccer ("football" in the real world) clips, including two from my favorite: Portugal v. Azerbaijan. Near the top of the list was a clip of Bob Woodward on NBC's "Meet the Press." The popular list invariably has clips from the Comedy Central as well.

This is the most complex issue facing any owners of YouTube. I have no doubt that Google will figure out how to make money, serve ads, etc. What'll they do about the copyrighted stuff? YouTube must stay open and easy to access in order to work.

I learned some pertinent things by talking to a very smart lawyer. First, copyright does not drift away through neglect. If you're a movie producer or TV network you can allow a clip to be on YouTube for a while, then exercise your copyright and have it removed. YouTubing a video can be a way of test-marketing.

Secondly, YouTube currently adheres strictly to the U.S. Digital Millenium Copyright Act. You make a founded claim of copyright and the video will be removed, but nothing is automated. That does not mean every legal question is crystal clear. Besides, legal standards vary widely around the globe.

Are any content owners currently using a blanket copyright enforcement? Can a network order YouTube to never allow any posting of any segment of a specific program? Something like that is going on with American sports. Just try finding any clips from Major League Baseball's current post-season games. Or any recent NFL or NCAA football games.

My lawyer friend tells me there's work being done on software that recognizes a particular video clip. Once a specific clip is banned, this software would then track other clips that match. But such software is not yet available for a commercial enterprise.

With Google's money and user base, plus YouTube's global reach and huge online market share, there's every reason to expect the copyright issues to get worked through. Potential billions of dollars of ad and sales revenue are at stake. Not to mention the desire on Google's part to surpass the tidy video empire iTunes has assembled.

My lawyer friend pointed out how awkward and self-defeating were the music and audio industry's early responses to the Internet and Napster. On the other end you have the Internet-embracing gaming industry, which encourages users to develop and publish mods for their favorite games. The video industry has been wandering in the muddled middle of this spectrum. Time will likely push the TV, movies and sports businesses toward the gaming end of the spectrum. I'm old enough to remember when Hollywood tried to stop video rercording at home. Now most movies make more money through home purchase and rental than through theater ticket sales.

Copyright or no, YouTube or some similar online aggregator of video will be the most efficient and effective way for producers to deliver video content to users. Google will be competing with iTunes, Yahoo, cable, telcos and satellite companies--all now trying to be video aggregators. Google's just put itself into the center of this inevitable video competition.

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