YouTube has recently deleted a lot of animation as well as suspended user accounts for copyright infringement. John K. is one of the victims, but not the only one.
Copyrights have become a real sore spot since the invention of the internet. There have been legal challenges to the Sonny Bono copyright act that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, so this isn't just animation fans complaining. The nature of culture in a corporate society is what's being debated. Rights holders are fighting those who feel that the public is being robbed of a common heritage by the extension of copyrights.
When I was younger, the maximum length of copyright in the U.S. was 56 years. If that was still the law, everything before 1950 would be public domain. As it stands, nothing after 1922 is public domain, and so an additional 28 years worth of material is still under the control of copyright holders. Nothing new will be added to the public domain until 2023.
There's a second battlefield and that has to do with how much control rights holders should have over their works. For instance, a musician or record company can't stop their music from being played on the radio. Radio stations pay license fees to performance rights organizations like ASCAP or BMI and then those organizations track how frequently a song is played and split up the license money proportionally.
However, when it comes to film and video, copyright holders can prevent their work from being seen. There is no license fee that a TV station, film distributor or website can pay and then be free to exhibit whatever work they want. The copyright holder has the ability to withhold the work from the public.
Right now, there are huge chunks of animation history that are unavailable legally. NBC-Universal controls the Walter Lantz library. Viacom controls the Terrytoon library. Sony controls the Columbia library, which includes cartoons produced by Charles Mintz, Columbia and UPA. I've got money I'd be happy to spend to acquire these cartoons on DVD. Why won't these companies take my money? And if they won't sell these items, why are they surprised when a black market develops?
Furthermore, even if a cartoon is available on DVD, its presence on the web could be used to draw attention to it. That's called marketing. Or a website could supplement it with new material, such as discussions of the work of the animators, the art direction, etc. In business terms, this is referred to as "value added." Bloggers are increasing the demand for these cartoons by adding information about them for free, and copyright holders are complaining?
We live in a world where businesses control governments through political contributions and lobbying dollars. Individuals haven't got a chance unless they can mobilize public opinion, and copyright is not the kind of bread and butter issue that excites the average voter. The only way that copyright laws will ever change to become fairer is when businesses are fighting other businesses.
YouTube is a rapidly growing website that's trying to dominate the web video business. Their software, allowing people to embed videos in their own blogs or websites, was a stroke of genius for spreading videos and building their own brand. Hollywood is already using YouTube as a farm team for talent and as a marketing tool to promote its own products.
YouTube is in position to argue for a licensing agreement that would guarantee rights holders a percentage of YouTube revenue and allow YouTube's users to post anything they want to the site. In other words, YouTube could function like radio. Unlike radio, where they can only sample how frequently something is played, YouTube can already tell you exactly how many times a clip has been viewed. It leaves the Neilson or Arbitron ratings in the dust.
Rather than limit what users could post, now is the time to open things up. YouTube wants to keep growing. Its users want to share whatever video they feel is worth watching. Rights holders want to get paid. There has to be a way to make everyone happy.
If not, then we're going to be faced with inconsistent enforcement of copyright laws. I guarantee you that in under an hour I could find more than a dozen copyrighted pieces on YouTube. YouTube is leaving itself open to a Napster-like lawsuit where some copyright holder will claim that because YouTube hosts these videos, they're participating in copyright infringement. That's not good business for YouTube or its competitors. A market will be destroyed, fortunes will be lost, piracy will increase and for what? Because we wanted to show a cartoon so we could talk about animation by Rod Scribner, Bob McKimson, Emery Hawkins or Fred Moore?
When will the media wake up and stop alienating the customers who buy their products and want to celebrate them by using examples on the web? When will YouTube wake up and realize its future is with its users and stand up for them against the copyright cops?