YouTube model not ready for IPTV

31 Oct 2006

Host any conference or exhibition that covers the topic of IPTV, and inevitably someone's going to mention YouTube and user-generated content (UGC). It happened at the IPTV World Forum Asia in Shanghai last month - there was even a panel dedicated to it (under the term "over the top" content, which includes video-sharing sites as well as video download services like Amazon Unbox). And it came up again during the IPTV section of last week's annual CASBAA conference in Hong Kong.

Between Shanghai and Hong Kong, of course, YouTube has since been acquired by Google, which has spurred debate even further over the role of user-generated content in pay-TV. For some time now, the IPTV crowd has been eyeing the YouTube/UGC craze as a possible differentiator for their services against cable and DTH. Or a possible competitor. Either way, there is much interest in capitalizing on the YouTube model of video sharing (as opposed to, say, the BitTorrent model) to beef up IPTV services because, hey, IPTV and YouTube are both delivered over IP. Surely there's gotta be a way to synergize that.

Well, maybe. Before that happens, a few things will have to be sorted out. Like a killer interface that integrates the living room experience with the desktop experience. And, more importantly, the copyright issues that the UGC model may now face.

YouTube may be one of the more celebrated successes of the Web 2.0, but it has always existed in murky legal territory that's about to get murkier. A significant chunk of YouTube's content (much of which also tends to be the most blogged) is technically copyrighted content, whether it's clips from movies or TV shows, full music videos, or mashups. Even content made by users from scratch may have copyrighted elements to it (such as the "Chad Vader" series featuring a guy in a Darth Vader costume playing Darth's younger brother who works as a manager in a supermarket).

Ever since the Google purchase, pundits have been predicting an onslaught of copyright lawsuits against YouTube. The reality is that it may be facing an onslaught of takedown notices. According to Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu (writing for Slate), YouTube is covered under Section 512 (c) of the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act that governs user-generated content, be it videos, blogs, Flickr accounts or MySpace pages. Essentially, if you spot copyrighted content on YouTube and notify them and they take it down, that's enough to satisfy the law (in theory).

It may not be that simple, though. Copyright law varies from country to country. A research paper released earlier this week from Queensland University of Technology in Australia found that video mashups are not protected under Australian copyright reforms being planned. Also, anti-DRM groups argue that mashups should fall under "fair use" because in virtually all cases, mashups are made for fun and not for money, but that's a position that has yet to be tested legally.

Either way, the takedown notices are already coming on. YouTube has already purged almost 30,000 videos featuring Japanese copyright holders, as well as a thousand sports clips and all clips originating from the Comedy Central, including South Park and The Daily Show (which, ironically, owes much of its success to YouTube). Meanwhile, Universal Music - which has a distribution deal with YouTube - is suing two rival video sites, Grouper and, for doing more or less the same thing YouTube does (which Universal almost sued YouTube for, incidentally).

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