Thursday, July 06, 2006

The YouTube Purge and a Copyright Rant

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?

12 comments:

Stephen Worth said...

One of the most serious issues involved here is the erosion of "fair use" protection. When John K discusses the importance of Robert McKimson to the Clampett unit at Warner Bros, and provides clips illustrating McKimson's style, he is clearly operating under fair use provisions. But YouTube didn't even take that into consideration. They saw Bugs Bunny and deleted it.

"Eatin' On The Cuff" is a cartoon that is in the public domain. It entered the public domain long before the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act became law. I remember first seeing it on the PBS "Matinee at the Bijou" program back in the early 80s. John K, or anyone else who wants to can legally distribute that cartoon on PD DVDs or over the internet. Yet, YouTube deleted John's clips from that cartoon because of a single letter of complaint- a letter that didn't even establish that the copyright to the work belonged to them.

Enforcement of laws that are unreasonable are bad enough... but enforcement of corporate demands that aren't even backed up by law are worse.

See ya
Steve

Jorge Garrido said...

All we can do is RAISE HELL. Everyone should write a letter or three expressing their outrage at this.

I'm told even the Fleischer Superman cartoons were deleted. Every single one of these is in the public domain.

Robert Hume said...

Great Post!! What makes me so mad about all this isn't so much the copy right laws, or how there abused really...but rather just the insulting slander this whole WB thing is to true Looney Tunes fans! This is in my opinion just the final straw for me in a long string of insults and misjudgements the Warner Brothers corporation has made in defaming and demoralizing those cartoons, characters, and there true fans in the years sense those classic cartoons have been made...it makes me sick!

Free American said...

I actually think the copyright holder should have say over how his property is used. In the same way you would have say over how your house or car is used. It's private property, regardless of its intellectual or physical nature.

In that respect, I support YouTube's right to decide on the content they leave up on their site.

But, the fair use clause does exist.

While it protects the "infringer," such as a third party who copies and uploads a clip for review, criticism, or parody, as well as any accomplices (such as YouTube), it doesn't prevent bullies, such as Warner Brothers, from threatening and even filing lawsuits.

If people want their fair use rights preserved, they need to be willing to go to court and defend them.

Unfortunately, that is expensive, and most people let themselves be bullied, losing not only their individual rights but the rights of everyone else as well.

Another issue to consider is that Warner's may not have even threatened a law suit but a loss of future joint ventures, ventures more lucrative to YouTube than its current one.

I do like your suggestion of some sort of "Performance Rights Organtization," as with radio.

But that is a proposal going to come from a profit seeking private organtization, not the government or the people's will.

I don't really care said...

If a copyright holder is granted rights into perpetuity, simply because they are a corporation that would like to profit into perpetuity, this in itself seems to violate the spirit of copyright law. But since this seems to be the way of things currently, should they not at least be required to demonstrate responsible guardianship-- that the public substantially BENEFITS from their continued copyright, and if not, that the property become public domain sometime after the creator's death, as was always intended?

Kevin Langley said...

I agree with Stephen, there is no such thing as "fair use" anymore. I admit on my blog I was more or less just sharing and not necessarily offering any real incite like the K's, John and Thad but most of the cartoons I posted aren't available. That's the reason I put them up there. I think YouTube wussed out because they feel they have more to gain by playing nice with corporations and their money than they do with their own users.

Another great post Mark.

Andre Barnwell said...

Thank you Mark Mayerson for the information on copyrights, Ive always wondered how it works especially with animation. Once again your knowledge and info is always insightful, woth reading and often clever.

David N said...

Now the thing that drives me nuts about this is that so many of the cartoons that were being posted on YouTube are NOT AVAILABLE anywhere else. If Warners or MGM , or whoever owns the copyrights/characters in those cartoons would release collections of them on DVD or , say , release them for download on iTunes,
I would buy them. Do you hear that Warner Bros. : I will PAY MONEY for DVD's of your old cartoons , but the problem is you're not selling them. (and I don't want them cut up and sanitized/censored ).

Michael Dedrick said...

This was a very insightful read.

Internet sites such youtube and myspace are where the industry is; and is going. There seems to be a huge market now in putting the control into the hands of the consumer, allowing them to control what they see and when they see it, at their own convienience; Tivo is another example of this.

I agree with your statement regarding industries, in that they are responsible for mass piracy to an extent by not having items in demand available for purchase.

My only regret is that I didn't discover this blog sooner, I will visit often, thanks Mark it's greatly apprieciated!

BPearce said...

"I've got money I'd be happy to spend to acquire these cartoons on DVD. Why won't these companies take my money?"

"Now the thing that drives me nuts about this is that so many of the cartoons that were being posted on YouTube are NOT AVAILABLE anywhere else."

I've no doubt the corporations in question would be all too happy to take your money. But if you're the only person who is interested in purchasing this material, or even if you're one of a thousand people who might be interested in purchasing this material, that's not likely to provide adequate return on the investment of packaging the material for sale.

I think people too often overlook -- or perhaps choose to overlook -- the point that just because they're interested in this stuff doesn't necessarily mean, by default, that there's enough interest out there to make it a commercially viable proposition.

And that fact doesn't excuse the owners of such material from taking steps to protect their intellectual property -- even when such steps aren't entirely warranted (as it the case here).

It's not a perfect situation, I'll grant you -- but I'll bet even if more cartoons were in the public domain and largely available, people would just end up complaining about the quality of the transfers, and the reluctance of the copyright holders to compile and release collections of better quality from the materials they hold (because of the risk of theft).

Anonymous said...

The whole notion of "intellectual property" is on thin ice by its very nature. How can you "own" an idea? A thought? By those rules, "Great minds think alike" (something we've all experienced) becomes "someone just copied me simultaneously!" There can be no progress if everyone is hoarding his thoughts and charging others for access to them.

Netbug said...

"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?"

THIS. One of my favorite animated series ever is was taken off the air, removed from itunes, etc etc etc and no DVDs are planned. If the company isn't trying to make money off it anyway, why get upset when people view it for free?