YouCan’tTube

If Silent YouTube continues we predict a total resurgence in mime.

If Silent YouTube continues we predict mime artistry as the hot new viral trend of '09.

Ever since YouTube launched in 2006, it has struggled to balance the interests of copyright holders with the activities of its users. The copyright of many well-known YouTube videos rests wholly with the uploader, especially ‘funniest home videos’-style verité footage, direct-to-camera videoblogs and footage of performers in action.

However, trouble has set in with clips from popular musicians, films and TV shows, as well as with other hugely popular YouTube genres that depend on incorporating other people’s copyrighted material: animations, fake trailers, video podcasts, montages, spoofs, remixes and mashups.

YouTube’s copyright violation measures arise from the fact it’s been backed into a corner by lawsuits from large organisations, notably Viacom, and squabbles over revenue with its partners, notably Warner Music. Originally, YouTube would simply remove copyright-violating videos, giving uploaders the opportunity to contest the decision under fair use provisions of intellectual property law. Then it created the AudioSwap tool, a library of royally dicky but royalty-free music that users could substitute for their former soundtrack to ensure their videos stayed live.

“Now we’ve added an additional choice,” explained YouTube on 14 January. “Instead of automatically removing the video from YouTube, we give users the option to modify the video by removing the music subject to the copyright claim and post the new version, and many of them are taking that option.”

In practical terms, this means a bunch of ghostly silent videos are wafting around YouTube with the official notice: “This video contains an audio track that has not been authorised by all copyright holders. The audio has been disabled.” It’s a genius policy really, because it completely ruins the enjoyment of the video and thus is a potent deterrent to further copyright-infringing uploads.

Of course, users went absolutely apeshit. The muting policy has been in place for a while now, but many users only recently encountered it due to the Warner dispute – after spending hours working on new videos. Some were angry that despite YouTube’s rhetoric of choice, they hadn’t been given an advance warning about Silent YouTube; others felt they were being punished despite having done ‘the right thing’ and paid for the music they were using.

“How does a song playing in the background of a slideshow about a colonial reenacting unit harm anyone – least of all Warner Music Group?” wrote scroz5. “It’s BS in my opinion. I could see having objections if I was profiting from it somehow, but it’s just a slideshow.”

“My video got blocked. I paid iTunes for that song,” complained nanods2. “This is crap. Crash and burn.”

“Seriously, YouTube, what do you expect us to do, spend $2 on a royalty free song or start composing our own songs?” asked clulexproductions.

“If we use it, wouldn’t the artist become more popular?” puzzled 4zNcReW. “If we can use it then that would probably get more people to listen to the audio. It’s pretty much like us helping the artist, right?”

Jean Burgess and Joshua Green: wrote the book on YouTube as well as mastering the art of the MySpace profile pic.

Jean Burgess and Joshua Green: wrote the book on YouTube; mastered the art of the MySpace profile pic.

Jean Burgess and Joshua Green are media academics who specialise in participatory screen cultures: Burgess as a research fellow at Queensland University of Technology; Green with the Convergence Culture Consortium at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They’ve just co-authored the first academic text about this online video behemoth, YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture. And they’re not particularly happy about this latest development either.

“In fact,” says Burgess, “it is difficult for me to see #silentyoutube as anything but utter contempt for the audience. Shame on all concerned.”

Green agrees. “The significant thing about this decision is that it potentially extends to the inclusion of music in many videos,” he tells The Enthusiast. “Media content are cultural goods as much as commodities [but] a decision like this – or indeed the development of a ‘fingerprinting’ system that automatically identifies appearances of ‘copyrighted’ media content – seeks to lock media into a position as commodity, demanding that it circulate through market frameworks.

“As a result, and in the US especially, the only exceptions available are if the use can qualify within the narrow types of speech that are considered ‘fair use’. Such a position ignores the fact that media commodities, as culture, circulate through a range of non-market situations. These non-market situations are the ones that give them value as media commodities – they are enmeshed within people’s everyday life as ‘significant’.”

Absolutely. The most vocal YouTube users were unanimous in feeling that this new measure was fundamentally against the spirit of user-generated content. Taking the company’s name literally, they’d come to think of it as ‘their’ site. YouTube’s community also stretches far beyond the site itself: its videos are pasted into blogs and websites and shared on social networking platforms including MySpace, Twitter and Facebook.

Moreover, YouTube has vastly extended our collective cultural memory to encompass key ‘moments’ that were previously ephemeral, existing only as shared recollections. We use these clips in good faith, similar to the way a documentary filmmaker would use archival footage, and it’s infuriating to see copyright holders behaving in a way that completely privileges economics over posterity.

YouTube’s terms of service explicitly forbid its use for commercial purposes, yet it finds itself in the contradictory position of cracking down on non-commercially produced videos to safeguard the copyright of its most profit-focused stakeholders.

At the same time, the advertising and marketing industries employ YouTube as a basic tool for ‘going viral’. For these users, commerce is inextricable from free distribution because allowing YouTube’s users to act as micro-promoters and distributors can actually make a company money in traditional channels. That’s what makes the big companies’ obsession with controlling intellectual property so wrongheaded.

“If anything, this decision indicates YouTube is privileging, or more concerned with, the interests of a particular group of its users over the interests of others,” Green observes. “Getting large media companies to sign up to revenue-sharing deals has been a particular problem for YouTube, and a decision like this does look to make YouTube a place more welcoming to companies that wish to control every instance of their content.”

YouTube is wooing these control-freak companies with software called Content ID. Companies submit copies of their material to YouTube, noting which things they’re happy to see disseminated and which ones they want yanked. Content ID then scans this database against all newly uploaded videos.

Intriguingly, it offers copyright holders two options if a violation is detected: blocking the offending video, or overlaying it with ads from YouTube’s parent company, Google. As you’d have noticed if you’ve been watching YouTube videos lately, 90% of Content ID claimants choose the latter option. “It’s clear to our 300+ Video ID partners that our technology has created a framework that allows copyright holders to sanction the creativity of their biggest fans,” wrote YouTube product manager David King on the official Google blog.

Green and Burgess did the research: how do people actually use YouTube? “YouTube is large enough and has been loosely enough managed that it can be bent for multiple outcomes,” says Green. “Some people use it as a way to catch up on things they’ve missed – news events or significant cultural events. For these purposes, YouTube follows mainstream media news and cultural agendas.”

YouTube also helps geographically dispersed people and communities engage in conversations – whether those be through participating in shared interests or teaching practical skills. “Some of these vloggers are deft enough to build businesses out of the conversations they maintain with their communities: driving revenue through ad sales, the sale of other products, and through the runoff that comes from the exposure YouTube provides,” Green adds.

Green describes YouTube as “a cultural clearing house, an archive of moments and events, a dynamic cultural system.” So, does YouTube’s stance on copyright protection threaten this unique culture?

“YouTube has long been the predominant site for video-sharing in the Western, English-speaking, internet using world,” he replies. “Elsewhere, however, sites such as Dailymotion or Tudou predominate. And if you’re looking for official content or long-form video you might want to head somewhere else: Hulu has made major inroads here in the US for providing content from some of the major television networks; anime and K-drama (Korean drama), for instance, move through different channels.” Then there’s Vimeo, “which privileges higher production values.” Basically, says Green, “YouTube is not a catch-all for all types of content.”

So despite the angry declarations from its users, this isn’t the end of YouTube?

“If I were to be cynical I would suggest that once YouTube deals with the issue of ‘user-created content’ by making it a space where only authorised users who behave according to commodity frameworks and market conditions could participate, then perhaps YouTube will be able to stop searching for and preventing ‘copyright infringement’,” says Green. “This, I think, might be the end of YouTube, however.”

Green believes our understanding of what differentiates media producers and consumers needs to be radically overhauled. “In the digital now, being an audience member might mean taking the tools at your disposal and manipulating the very media you’re engaging with to comment on, write about or speak to the significance, role, purpose or triviality of this content. Perhaps it’s overstating the significance of this act if we continue to see it as authorship or as publishing, and instead we need to see some of it – not all of it – as consumption; or rather, to recognise that consumption is active and can involve writing as well as reading.

“If we can shift the way we think about engagement with media content, then it changes the question of what the claim of ‘copyright infringement’ should extend to,” concludes Green. Perhaps then copyright holders will begin to see user-generated content as a legitimate part of media viewing, rather than a threat to it.

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