Ever since Google closed its $1.6 billion acquisition of YouTube last fall, the countdown began. In the absence of a licensing deal, the likelihood grew that one or more of the entertainment conglomerates whose videos regularly got reposted on the service without their permission would turn to the courts for redress.
Even though YouTube has grown exponentially, the bulk of its traffic still depends upon videos made by professional content creators. Its apologists can claim that certain provisions of the hopelessly antiquated Digital Millennium Copyright Act offer protection. But the folks running Google aren't dummies.
They recognize the risks of walking around with a veritable Sword of Damocles trailing everywhere. There's no higher principle at stake here. The only folks spoiling for a war are certain knuckleheads in the peanut section.
So it is that there is a silly notion making the rounds that Viacom is making a terrible business mistake. You can find many expressions of the same tired theme. One particularly logicfree argument maintains that by demanding that YouTube pull purloined videos off its service, Viacom is only hurting itself because the Google-owned video-sharing site is a "promotional vehicle."
I'm sure that comes as astonishing news to Viacom. Since the lawsuit talks about "rampant infringement" causing grave harm to businesses that actually generate creative works of content, what gives? I can only suppose that the memo explaining the windfall the corporation can expect from ignoring copyright infringement got stuck in the mail room.
Ah, but I forgot; they're all corporate thieves anyway. And they likely smell of BO, to boot.
Viacom's critics are predictably snorting mad today. The message boards are lit up with angry "viewers" threatening never to watch another Daily Show clip again. (Guys, I think the lawsuit obviates the need for the boycott, but never mind.)
In their worldview, Viacom's legal claims are merely bogus corporate claptrap from a big media power more interested in protecting its turf than in playing nice with the "information just wants to be free" crowd. But let's not confuse things. This is anything but a modern-day struggle between David and Goliath.
Viacom and Google are two mega companies trying to figure out the rules for coexistence in a digital reality that didn't exist a couple of years ago. The last thing Google wants is a protracted and expensive legal fight. Ditto for Viacom and the rest of the content creators out there.
Everyone knows what needs to happen. Agreeing on the details is the hard part. Sources say everybody's talking with everybody but that the hang-up is about money (isn't it always?).
Viacom and the rest of the creative community can do wonderfully well by using the Internet to their advantage. But they first need to forge an agreement that will protect them from nitwits who view cyber rip-offs as another expression of viral marketing.
You get this over and over again in any discussion of copyrights and YouTube. I recall how one misleading-titled blog post approvingly mentioned the results of a CBS poll finding a connection between the downloading of video and an increase in television viewing. The poster conveniently ignored the salient point of the report: CBS wanted a way to profit by streaming its own programming. YouTube wasn't part of the equation.
For CBS, the Internet would serve as another distribution channel--one in which it could exercise proper control over its property.
Is that too radical a notion for most of us to accept? Not if you have half a brain. The rhetoric on all sides may escalate, but cooler heads surely will find a way to figure out a sensible accord. That's what nearly always happens.
In the meantime, here's my advice to anyone who wants to watch John Stewart: Stop whining, and pay for the damned subscription.
Charles Cooper is CNET News.com's executive editor of commentary.
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