Ever since YouTube was snatched up by Google, everyone has been waiting for the other shoe - i.e. the massive class-action copyright infringement lawsuit - to drop. Debates have been raging on the Web over whether GooTube can be held liable so long as it honors its takedown notice policy. Anne Sweeney, the head of Disney's entertainment and news television properties, has grumbled that the policy is too cumbersome to work effectively.
Either way, the notices have been coming pretty steadily. And at this rate, it may not be long before we find out what the real attraction on YouTube has been: home videos and amateur productions, or content that is technically copyrighted.
I firmly suspect the latter. This isn't very scientific, but after conducting a poll of 15 people on my personal email list, I found that 100% of respondents tuned in mainly for rare music performances from old TV programs or clips from TV shows or films, or amusing pop-culture mash-ups. Take this with clear examples of music groups and cult TV shows benefiting from the viral buzz of YouTube, and it's hard to understand why some major media companies still don't get this.
Even some who claim to get it can't seem to make up their minds. Universal Music, for example - which has a content deal with YouTube - has sued video sharing sites like Grouper and Bolt.com for doing what YouTube does. It's also suing MySpace for letting users post music videos and songs. Then again, for all I know this may just be Universal's way of negotiating a decent revenue-sharing arrangement. But you'd think they'd make that clear to music fans instead setting themselves up - again - to play the heavy-handed villain.
Few would argue against the right of copyright holders to control how their content is distributed and for how much. But there's a savage irony at work here: the Web 2.0 mantra puts the end-user at the center of the digital universe, but the users who want to consume and share digital media are hamstrung by a pre-digital business model that declares them copyright thieves.
Those content owners that have insisted on blaming users instead of fixing their busted business model have arguably done more to alienate consumers than discourage piracy (although to argue that posting a video clip on YouTube is no different from selling pirated DVDs is preposterous).
Sites like YouTube and the media companies clearly stand to benefit by working together. If they don't, the end-users will do what all consumers do: take their business elsewhere.