Google / YouTube was in federal district court in New York on Friday defending a lawsuit brought by Viacom and several other media companies. The New York Times story says "Google hopes technology will be in place in September to stop the posting of copyright-infringing videos on its YouTube site, a company lawyer told a judge presiding over copyright lawsuits yesterday."
This is like Lindsey Lohan saying, OK so I did drive drunk a couple times, and did drive with a suspended license, but I am in rehab now and I won't do it again. So, everything is OK now. Lets just drop this and move on. Hmmm...not so fast.
Lets think about a few questions; How will the filtering system work? How will users subvert the systems? What if the system actually works? Will advertisers be interested in a YouTube without the good stuff? Even if it does work will the advertising economics work? First a little more background, then lets take those questions one at a time.
C/Net News story says "If in fact Google puts this (system) in place, it is obviously way too late," Solomon said. "But we encourage Google to come forward and do what other companies have already done and treat all the content providers fairly. Not just the favorite few who have agreed to share advertising revenue with YouTube."
During the court proceeding, lawyers from both sides estimated that pre-trial discovery could take more than a year. That means there's a chance that YouTube's copyright issues may not be resolved until late next year.
Viacom is suing for $1 Billion for past copyright infringement. What Google/YouTube does in the future is irrelevant to the facts of this case. The laws against copyright infringement are strict and the penalties are stupendously large...$250,000 per instance. Viacom only needs to document 4,000 instances of copyright infringement to collect $1B in damages. YouTube probably does 4,000 streams of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" in one day.
How will Google's copyright filtering work? I haven't seen it, but based on what I have read it works by creating a "digital fingerprint" of the original video or music, and comparing it to every file uploaded to YouTube. Music and video uploaded to the Internet is converted to a digital file which is basically a series of ones and zeros. Digital fingerprinting simply records the series of ones and zeroes, then uses pattern matching technology to find instances of matches, even small sequences found in short clips.
What does this mean for music and video producers? It means they must submit to Google an original copy of every piece of content they own. They also must provide proof that they own the copyright. Then they need to trust Google to screen out any offending uploads. The copyright owners will still need to monitor YouTube to make sure the system is working...and serve Google with "take down" notices when it fails.
How will users subvert the system? People who upload music and video are usually pretty tech savvy and take delight in beating any system. They will do the obvious things; change the name of the file, chunk it up into short clips, add characters, sound, or other video to confuse the system, stretch or wave the video to make it appear different, and a bunch or other tricks. Think about the bot filtering technology on blogs and web sites that require you to type in a series of letters to confirm you are a real person. A computer bot can't read the squiggly lines and waves in the letters but humans can easily read them. The same sorts of techniques can be applied to music and video to fool algorithmic filters.
What about "sampling" and "fair use"? The copyright law allow for "sampling" and "excerpts" under the "fair use" provisions. These laws are very imprecise and open to interpretation. No computer generated filter will be able to determine what is "fair use" and what is copyright infringement.
What if the copyright filter system actually works? Will YouTube be interesting if there is no "good" content? How many videos of college kids drinking and dancing will you watch? Will the power users bother to upload music and video if they can't put up the good stuff? Will YouTube viewers care about watching it?
Will advertisers be interested in a YouTube without great content? YouTube is very expensive to operate. The hosting costs, bandwidth, infrastructure, and people cost millions. Advertising is the only real source of revenue. Will advertisers be willing to pay for placement on YouTube? Will they be comfortable displaying their brands next to random, perhaps raunchy, content? Even if they do, will the economics work? Low ad rates against expensive content don't work no matter how you scale it.
There is a great future in Internet video...at some point. YouTube may be the early pioneer that makes all the mistakes and clears the way for a "fast follower" to come in and do it right. Or, YouTube may figure it all out and make the necessary changes fast enough to survive and thrive. There is a long history of early innovators being eclipsed by fast followers. Some of the issues discussed above are reasons why it happens so often. The jury is (literally) still out on YouTube.