Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Is the music industry shooting itself in the foot?

After Viacom’s negotiations with YouTube (Google) fell through, Viacom went through all the videos on YouTube and had removed those videos which violated Viacom’s copyrights. Well, not exactly. It would have been impossible to go through all the videos on YouTube and make an accurate determination as to which ones violated Viacom’s copyrights. There are simply too many, and the process cannot be accurately mechanized with today’s technology. What exactly Viacom did do is an open question. Certainly they had a lot of videos removed. Most of those, we may hope, were actual copyright violators, at least according to Viacom’s interpretation of the copyright law. Some clearly were not. And it is quite implausible that the videos removed included every single video that does violate a Viacom copyright.

In this post I’m concerned particularly with music copyrights. It is a common practice on YouTube, almost certainly illegal in many cases – perhaps in all cases – but arguably quite fruitful artistically, for non-copyright-holders to use copyrighted music in their videos. Sometimes it is an integral part of the video, and other times it is just background music. Until recently, it was also common for those who engaged in the aforementioned practice to identify, in some text format, the music in their videos. This latter practice served two functions. First, it enabled those interested in the music to find those videos. Second, it enabled those who watched the videos, but who were not previously familiar with the music, to find better copies of the music itself – often, I would imagine, for purposes of purchase. It also had the unintended function, so it turns out, of enabling copyright holders to find violations easily.

But things are changing. In the aftermath of the Viacom purge, video makers are recognizing that they do not have an incentive to identify the music in their videos. Without a text format identification of the music, each copyright holder is searching for a very specific set of needles in a large haystack. So this form of copyright violation is likely to continue – indeed to continue with greater impunity than in the past. The difference is that it will no longer benefit copyright holders by publicizing their products.

In principle, in deciding how aggressively to enforce its copyrights in this context, a holder faces a tradeoff between, on the one hand, the free advertising provided by the videos and, on the other hand, (a) the possibility that the videos substitute for the genuine musical product provided by the copyright holder and (b) the possibility that video makers would be willing to pay for copyright use if they were not able to steal it. The problem is, neither (a) nor (b) is really plausible. The audio track from a video designed to stream over moderate-bandwidth connections – in YouTube’s case, not even in stereo – is not at all a close substitute for a CD or an iTunes download. And as for (b), if you didn’t laugh when you read it, that’s probably just because I told it wrong. And then, of course, there’s the fact that enforcing these copyrights doesn’t actually stop people from violating them; it just stops people from violating them in ways that might benefit the holder.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

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Wed Feb 28, 07:28:00 AM EST  
Blogger Jeremy McKibben-Sanders said...

Occasionally I do use YouTube videos with music as a substitute for buying songs, and sometimes I even rip the songs from streaming video if I really like them (which is probably more trouble than it's worth). Then again, I'm only a poor college student who doesn't use iTunes, so this probably isn't very widespread.

Wed Feb 28, 10:44:00 AM EST  
Blogger knzn said...

Jeremy, when you say "a substitute for buying songs", do you mean that you actually would buy the song if the video weren't available?

Wed Feb 28, 11:16:00 AM EST  
Blogger Jeremy McKibben-Sanders said...

In at least a few cases I probably would have bought a CD if I'd really wanted to listen to a few songs by a particular artist, but it just seemed like a waste of money when the songs were available online via streaming video.

Then again, I've bought CDs in the past because it would have been too much trouble to rip every song (or alternately, every song was not available online). I'm not suggesting that you're necessarily wrong, but I suspect that Viacom has weighed the costs and benefits of having its copyrighted material freely available in YouTube videos, and has found that the costs are greater.

Wed Feb 28, 03:06:00 PM EST  
Blogger knzn said...

The main benefit for Viacom, I think, is a reputation for toughness in any future negotiations. After Google wouldn't agree to their terms, they wanted to maximize the pain inflicted.

Wed Feb 28, 03:34:00 PM EST  
Blogger YouNotSneaky! said...

Some clearly were not.

One of the apparent victims of the Viacom purge was this Belarussian band Krambambulya whom I've never heard of before stumbling on them on YouTube, whose CD's I would be most happy to purchase as a result of the small taste I got from YouTube were they available, and whose music was most likely not owned by Viacom (I'm guessing they were a victim based on the timing of when their videos were removed from YT). In fact, I'm willing to bet that YT was the way this obscure band was trying to get its music out to a greater number of people. So Viacom was not just protecting its copyrights but imposed an external cost on other music producers who were pursuing different marketing/business strategies (not to mention consumers). I'm not buying anything from them again. Goodbye SpongeBob SquarePants.

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