To the Media, YouTube Is a Threat and a Tool

By Yuki Noguchi and Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Media companies are of two minds about Internet video-sharing site YouTube, which rocketed to fame by letting users share homemade videos along with copyrighted clips from movies, TV shows and music videos.

They are unsure of whether YouTube is a friend or a foe -- a threat that could siphon off their TV audiences and ad dollars or a powerful promotion machine that could generate buzz for the shows. While users have had virtually unfettered freedom to post and watch whatever clips they want, big media companies are starting to reassert control by seeking removal of some shows.

If all or most of the bootlegged content disappears from YouTube, some users wonder whether YouTube can live up to the promise Google Inc. saw when it agreed to buy the site for $1.65 billion in stock this month.

Last week, Comedy Central asked YouTube to remove some copyrighted clips of its "South Park" and "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart." At the same time, NBC Universal Inc. has opted to let copyrighted clips of its "Saturday Night Live" and "The Office" stick around on the site.

"Everybody is learning, in some sense, how to draw the line," said Rick Cotton, executive vice president and general counsel for NBC Universal. Cotton said NBC asks YouTube to take down more than 1,000 clips a month, including some that cross an obvious line by including an entire episode of a show. But NBC thinks exposing other clips on YouTube could help the network.

"This medium is at the cutting edge," Cotton said. "I think our creative executives feel that 'The Office' and 'Saturday Night Live' benefit from the significant attention we've gotten online."

YouTube is the most recent example of how the ease of sharing digital information poses copyright threats to media companies. Internet users can self-publish just about anything, including clips of popular TV shows that they record at home. Over the past year, the site has brought Internet video to the masses, drawing 81 million visitors in September, according to ComScore Networks Inc. Now, as more people spend more time watching video on the Web, companies such as NBC are looking to YouTube to help figure out the future of television.

Not all networks are open-minded about YouTube. Last week, a group representing Japanese authors and copyright holders reportedly asked YouTube to take down 30,000 videos. News Corp. also toes a hard line, asking the site to take down all infringing content.

Comedy Central and its parent company, Viacom Inc., declined to comment on the request it made to YouTube last week. A spokeswoman for YouTube, Julie Supan, also declined to comment on the Comedy Central removals.

But thousands of clips from Comedy Central shows remained on YouTube yesterday, including ones from "South Park" and "The Daily Show."

One of YouTube's challenges is that some media companies haven't developed a unified policy on how to deal with violations of their copyrighted material, according to Supan, YouTube's senior marketing director.

"On one phone call, we're getting asked to remove the content. The next one is from a marketing team from the same company who is uploading it and asking where it is" on the Web site, she said.

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