YouTube Thoughts

By Richard Menta 10/16/06

"The poster child for [user-generated media] sites are MySpace and YouTube," said Universal CEO Doug Morris at a Merrill Lynch investors conference. "We believe these new businesses are copyright infringers and owe us tens-of-millions of dollars."

The content that Morris is talking about in the case of YouTube include music videos that the company gave away for decades and popular music that finds its way both intentionally and unintentionally into the background of amature home videos. There is also television and DVD movie content, mostly clips.

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So what happens a week after making these comments? Google buys YouTube in a deal that is causing quite a stir on the Net. Furthermore, many of ther major music labels have come and agreement over the last couple of weeks with YouTube, including Universal. I guess public threats are good for negotiations. For its part, YouTube has agreed to filter some major label content and monetize what is allowed. Similar deals should soon appear from the television and sports networks as well as label holdout Warner Music.

But is this content worth tens-of-millions of dollars? Before you answer that ask yourself this, would you pay something, anything, to see some teenager screech along with a Madonna song? True, it might actually be some entertaining screeching, but is there a commercial value to it? And does it have to be commercial?

Can't it just be for good old fun?

There is certainly a non-commercial social value to YouTube. That is the spirit of the site, even if its creator always intended to profit from it.

The last few days I searched for some obscure video clips just to see what I could find on the commercial side. I searched for clips from a 1960's movie called the Big TNT Show, arguably the best concert flick ever. What I found were a series of extracted performances including brilliant ones by Ike and Tina Turner and Ray Charles as well as not so brilliant ones like Joan Baez attempting to sing soul. YouTube didn't have Bo Diddly's performance, a highlight of the show, but I did find a very relaxed Roger Miller, the Byrds, and the Loving Spoonful struggling to keep in time.

I then thought I would really challenge YouTube by searching for a mid-1960's Saturday morning TV progam called Milton the Monster. That show only lasted a season or so and is vaguely remembered by the baby boomers who were kids back then, yet I found several clips including a couple of entire cartoons. Like Napster and eBay, YouTube is able to tap even the most obscure ephemera.

Type in artists of yore like Blind Willie Johnson from the 20's, Billie Holiday from the 40's, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie from the 1950's and you find them all. I even found that someone has loaded a collection of Australian rock bands from the 60's. It's all there, a grass roots historical archive of contemporary 20th century music.

I can view it all, but would I pay for it all? I might pay for the DVD of the BIG TNT Show, but it is not available commercialy. But what about those clips, would I pay for them? Possibly. I am not arguing these clips don't have some value, they do for me, but - and this is an MBA talking - value is not always measured in dollars and cents. Culture and history deserve to florish, even if it conflicts with a copyright holder's right to make a buck.

If the entertainment industry insists on charging $1.99 per video clip of Billie Holiday just to match the price of what they sell Usher videos on iTunes then it's too much. If they let these older artifacts remain free then there is something greater that is preserved, even if the entertainment is something of lesser note like Milton the Monster.

In 2002 MP3 Newswire wrote this, mostly focused on the movie business, but it applies for all the commercial video on YouTube:

What is the ultimate goal here? To make every surviving piece of celluloid that exists available to the public. There are some wonderful movie classics like Josef Von Sterberg's Anatahan, Harold Lloyd's the Freshman and Ernst Lubitch's Trouble in Paradise that are no longer available on tape. The truth is there is not enough of an easily reached audience to justify the substantial copying and distribution costs via VHS and DVD.

The Net solves that problem, both because it is relatively cheap to digitize and stream movies online and because it can easily bring together disparate minions of like-minded viewers in the same way that eBay brings together like-minded collectors of the most obscure items...This would include such ephemera as newsreels, trailers, screen tests, out takes, and anything else that can serve the most rabid fan or meticulous film scholar.

The grass roots nature of YouTube has come the closest to what was describe above, though focused on just clips rather than entire films. That is why it would be a tragedy if they start removing videos from YouTube. The good news is that both the record and movie concerns are open to allowing many of these clips to survive as is. For example, a license for music playing in the background of home videos has been hashed out by YouTube so the American Idol wannabe can continue the audition. As for those Billie Holiday and Bo Diddley clips, we may just see advertising that pushes the movies those snippets were drawn from. Other material may either see no charge, require a hefty payment, or be pulled altogether. Either way, experiments in pricing to evaluate true consumer monetary value - rather than charging whatever the DVD or CD lists for - will yield more prosperous results for both sides.

How it all evolves really depends on what lessons both the music and movie industries learned from the closing of Napster. The simple fact that agreements have trumped litigation is proof something indeed has been learned.

Other MP3 stories:
iPod Killers for Christmas 2006
Amazon Unbox - Terms Undermine Value


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