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.
Six of the top 20 most-watched videos on YouTube.com as of yesterday came from movies, TV shows, commercials or music videos. Viewed more than 5 million times each, they include clips from NBC's "America's Got Talent," the movie "Napoleon Dynamite" and Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie" music video.
Posting copyrighted clips violates the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act. But under that law, YouTube and similar sites cannot be held liable if they have a mechanism for taking down copyrighted materials "expeditiously." YouTube said it plans to launch technology that will help it automatically identify copyrighted content. Rival site Guba, which has about 2 million monthly users, has its own filtering technology that blocks copyrighted goods from being posted more than once.
Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University, predicted that content owners will find a middle ground between yanking everything and letting YouTube users have free reign. "It would in some ways be a suicide pact for them to take down everything, because they would lose the attention" that the Web generates, he said.
Already, NBC, CBS, Warner Music and others have inked deals to provide YouTube with officially sanctioned videos. In some cases, YouTube is sharing ad revenue with content owners.
Not all YouTube users see copyrighted content as the main attraction of the site, where users post more than 100,000 clips daily.
Rebeccah Snyder, a 26-year-old college student from Ypsilanti, Mich., is a regular contributor who posts videos of herself talking about her life. "I was never on [YouTube] looking for the 'South Park' episodes or the jokes from 'The Colbert Report,' " Synder said. "It's always been a community thing."
But for many, the TV shows are the big draw.
Lawrence Lee, a 22-year-old who lives in Arlington, has posted "Daily Show" clips to YouTube and doesn't worry too much about copyright infringement. "There's been such a separation from my generation in that area. Not many people are as concerned about the copyright issue," Lee said. "People want to have entertainment. People want to share their experience with their friends. This is not really going to change all that much until [TV] networks get behind using this new technology to push their media out."
Another user, Jeff Reifman, said he was upset to discover that clips he and others had posted of "The Daily Show" were removed Friday.
Reifman said he had felt comfortable posting clips after the show's star, Jon Stewart, seemed to endorse video sharing in an interview with Wired magazine.
Removing its fare from YouTube is a move Comedy Central will come to regret, Reifman said. "All the people who posted videos are volunteer marketers for Comedy Central," he said. "The network benefits from people talking about their programming, becoming the water-cooler chatter at the office. They've shot themselves in the foot."
Some companies apparently recognize the appeal of illicitly copied videos and try to make their material look pirated to generate excitement among users.
Nike Inc., for example, posted the same short video of soccer star Ronaldinho on YouTube, once under the user name "nikesoccer" and again under the "joeB" moniker. Nike spokeswoman Morgan Shaw acknowledged that the company posts videos under different names to appeal to teen audiences.
"It's really, really common" for companies to try to pose as average users, YouTube's Supan said, adding that the company encourages TV and movie studios and big advertisers to upload videos under their company names. "Users want to know it's legitimate content."