Google’s Safe Harbour for the Pirates

YouTube Generation (image by jonsson, Flickr, CC)So, big news today for those watching – the first major round of the war between YouTube (Google) and Viacom (plus Paramount, B.E.T., The Football Association Premier League and others) has been won by the accused.  Google has been given the go-ahead to continue with its YouTube business model of requiring copyright infringements to be flagged before it will act upon them.

In many ways, particularly with YouTube now apparently having over 24hrs of footage uploaded every minute, this is the only way that such a site can operate; but Google isn’t fooling anybody, in that a large part of the success of YouTube is clearly based on copyright infringement.  You could argue that a substantial part of Google’s business model as a whole is based upon copyright infringement of one form or another (the contextual ads on posts like this can often be quite a source of amusement)…for those of you with blogs or other sites, have you granted them rights to cache a copy?  But then, would we really want it any other way?

What I do like is that situations like this force commercial enterprises to come up with new ways of doing business.  It would have taken many more years for online music distribution to have taken off as it has were it not for rampant digital music piracy.  Not to mention the fact that such infringements – or the legal equivalents of, such as Creative Commons – often (not always, but often) work in the favour of artists.  Have a look at the recent efforts of Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Radiohead, which caused a great deal of controversy within the music industry but proved to be a massive success for both parties.

There have also been a number of studies conducted that show that those who pirate most are also, ironically, often those who spend the most money.  They have a much deeper interest in general, and so spend more on purchasing high-quality products such as DVDs/Blu-Ray; limited editions; concert tickets; merchandise etc.

I think this battle is being so vehemently fought because many companies are starting to seriously worry about being made redundant.  Will we still require multi-nationals when our marketing needs are met through social media (i.e. what your friends like and recommend…usually by posting a YouTube clip), and our distribution capabilities directly cut out the middleman?

It’s already massively impacting the newspaper industry, however much they want to deny it, and I think it is really beginning to impact the music industry as well.  What is needed is a more egalitarian form of distribution – because otherwise we will just create our own.  But what the larger companies seem to want to do is fight change rather than embrace it.  Rather than rushing to provide us with relatively cheap, unlimited, by-demand entertainment subscriptions they cling to the old forms of distribution made digital.

I’m simplifying the matter somewhat, I know, but things are heading in this direction – and it’s almost inevitable that the vast majority of our entertainment needs will soon be met via a few subscription services rather than individual purchases.  We’re also starting to become less satisfied by being told what to think or desire, unless it comes from within our own peer group, so there goes the traditional marketing strategies in favour of more organic, viral ones.

As an aside, let’s take a look at one particular example which I feel highlights the inherent hypocrisy often involved.  I religiously use the Sky+ functionality to record television programmes so that I can watch them without ads.  Yes, I’m paying a subscription for the service (which goes towards purchasing licensing rights); but the advertisers certainly aren’t having anywhere near the impact that they were beforehand.  Even more importantly though, were I to download the same programme – or even watch it on YouTube – I would be breaking copyright law; even with this satellite subscription that would have allowed me to do the same thing legally.

What does worry me about all of this is that we are likely to see a similar situation with video as that which occurred with music – the juggernauts will come after individual users; tiny little ants that they can stomp on with their big, multi-national boots of fail.  The one thing we do know about being online is that the average user is very easy to track and identify if need be, it is very rare that anybody uses a proxy service out in the mainstream world of illegal downloading.

Viacom already successfully forced Google to hand over detailed logs of those who use the site – including IP addresses; viewing habits; email accounts and more – and it won’t be too long, I fear, before we start seeing companies use such tactics to go after individuals more and more often.  It’s either that, or they just lobby governments to do the dirty work for them…internet kill switch, anybody?

Well, I think I’ve gone on about this for long enough!  I’ve left quite a few gaps in this piece and I really want to hear your thoughts on the impact of all this – such as where might the war go next?  Because if we can be sure of one thing, it’s that the buck won’t stop here.

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