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Copyright for Video and Social Distribution

April 28, 2010 by News

Gail Mooney published a thought provoking article about copyright and video on her Journeys of a Hybrid blog.

Generally speaking the end client or video production company holds the copyright to the finished production. This is why I made a conscious decision when I got into video many years ago, to position myself as a producer and not “just” a content provider. I wanted to maintain creative control and ownership of my projects.

I agree with Gail when she says that it seems the only ones benefitting from strong copyright protections are the publishers. They strip the rights away from the creator with draconian contracts and then lobby congress to extend the period of protected corporate ownership:

The Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) of 1998 extended copyright terms in the United States for works of corporate authorship to 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication – summarized from Wikipedia

I think that just like the music industry and the movie business have been forced to adopt new ways of thinking, digital image creators will soon have to follow. While at NAB I sat in on a lecture from my favorite futurist, Ray Kurzweil.


He talked about how technology democratizes the world and used the example of how the music industry refused to provide digital downloads when the technology existed and end users wanted it. We all know how that worked out. Napster provided the mechanism for people to download music bypassing the antiquated distribution models that the record labels held onto with a tight grip. This opened up the door for iTunes, Amazon and other legitimate download services to step in and create a new business model based on digital distribution.

CopyrightYoutube, Vimeo, and Flickr are currently where the end users are going to consume content. These sites are social tools as well as distribution methods. If you want your work seen and discovered by the most people, it needs to be socialized and freely passed around the web. Keeping a tight grip on your images and video by sending cease and desist letters to bloggers and website means that no one will see your creative work and you will quickly loose relevance. Remember how most of us sat around and tisk-tisked the music business for not being smart enough to go with the flow and quit fighting the digital tide? It’s time photographers and other creatives start finding better ways to protect their work while creating new business models built around a world where digital content flows freely like running water.

It’s nice to see someone active on the ASMP board talk about the possibility of finding new ways to protect visual imagery in a digital world:

Perhaps we need to start thinking of ourselves as “publishers” rather than just content providers. It’s never been more possible to be a publisher, because distribution has been democratized by the web, giving all of us a pipeline to a global audience.

Thinking differently is what needs to happen. If you try and lock down your creative works, you risk becoming irrelevant. If you try to selectively enforce your copyright while simultaneously leveraging social media for exposure, you will loose on both fronts. It is almost impossible to have it both ways as evidenced in two high profile instances, one where media giant Viacom shows it’s split personality damaging it’s own lawsuit against YouTube, and the other involving the Band OK Go’s viral video marketing.

For years, Viacom continuously and secretly uploaded its content to YouTube, even while publicly complaining about its presence there. It hired no fewer than 18 different marketing agencies to upload its content to the site. It deliberately “roughed up” the videos to make them look stolen or leaked. It opened YouTube accounts using phony email addresses. It even sent employees to Kinko’s to upload clips from computers that couldn’t be traced to Viacom. And in an effort to promote its own shows, as a matter of company policy Viacom routinely left up clips from shows that had been uploaded to YouTube by ordinary users – from the YouTube blog

On one hand you have Viacom actively enforcing their legal rights as copyright owners and on the other hand, they are trying to leverage social media to increase sales. I don’t see how they will be able argue that copyright infringement through YouTube is bad and should be stopped only when Viacom thinks it’s in their best interest. In the United States, if you don’t vigorously protect your copyright or trademark in all instances, you forfeit the right to do so in the future. There is no such thing as selective enforcement.

This also became a problem for the band OK Go, who’s quirky low budget video of band members performing a synchronized dance routine on treadmills spread like wildfire through the internet practically making them stars overnight. Once stars, the bands videos were no longer controlled by them but by the record label who paid to have them made, in this instance, EMI. EMI had a right and an obligation to protect their copyright and control their content but that ran afoul of the bands and the fans wishes. OK Go wrote an open letter to their fans explaining why their videos could no longer be embedded and passed around like the first one.

So, for now, here’s the bottom line: EMI won’t let us let you embed our YouTube videos. It’s a decision that bums us out. We’ve argued with them a lot about it, but we also understand why they’re doing it. They’re aware that their rules make it harder for people to watch and share our videos, but, while our duty is to our music and our fans, theirs is to their shareholders, and they believe they’re doing the right thing.

OK Go eventually left EMI and started their own label

. . . since the videos have become embeddable, digital album sales tripled and digital tracks sales have jumped more than sevenfold. – Fast Company

It is a fine line between using social distribution to reach a wider audience and being able to make a living producing creative content. I don’t have all the answers as evidenced by the way I locked out embedding on my iPhone NAB videos (have to think about that one). Saying that we live in an information society while keeping information locked down is equivalent to being a manufacturing society without access to raw materials. We really do live in interesting times.

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