Sunday, February 04, 2007

YouTube and Artist Copyright Infringement

The YouTube/Viacom news this week appear to be the beginning of the next battle over copyrighted material distribution over social networks. However, there are real and significant differences between YouTube and the Napster and P2P networks conflicts of old. These differences expand beyond just new technologies and ownership issues and touch on the very nature of public participation in culture.

On one hand, while the Viacom request does signal an awareness of Web 2.0's ability to perpetuate the unauthorized capture, storage and distribution of intellectual property, it also reflects the company's embrace of the medium as powerful, proprietary tool. Reading related news, I could not help thinking that Viacom's cease and desist move is not a battle against the innovation of Web 2.0, but rather is the first logistical step towards the creation of its own video and interactive media platform to rival YouTube. Content creators have gotten smart to the power of democratized distribution in powering new brands and innovations. The catch is, they want to control the terms and discourse of that democracy.

This creates some profound dilemmas for cultural institutions. While Viacom has the ability to develop their own video and rich media platform, Museums and cultural institutions are hard-pressed to deliver platforms for even static images of their collections on the web - most institutions are worlds away from tools for interactive media and video. Unfortunately, the inabaility to develop their own tools for distributing cultural content does not resolve issues of copyrights and licensing for Museums. This issue is rather platform independent - and given the prevelance and breadth of material that can be distributed via social networks is virtually unbound. Many museum goers now have cell phones with video, image and sound capture. A bit of informal research indicated that searching "Metropolitan Museum of Art" uncovered over 140 unofficial videos of its collection online at YouTube. Many of these videos contain material to which the artist or the artist's estate still maintains a copyright.

To probe this question more deeply, I contacted the Artist Rights Society (ARS), the foremost licensor, regulator and protector of artists' copyrights in the United States. Indeed, the question of cultural content on sites like YouTube or Flickr will most likely turn on the enforcement of image copyright by the ARS. Below is a portion of my open letter to the society.

"I am inquiring as to whether ARS has an official position is in relation to artist copyrighted material propagating on the Internet (specifically on user-generated content sites like YouTube, Flickr and MySpace)."

"... in terms of enforcement, in whom is the ARS most interested; the institutions where the image capture occurs, the public who personally store and transmit copyright materials or the websites (such as YouTube) that broadcast this material to millions of users without permission?"

I look forward to reporting on the response, as these are essential questions for how Museums ride the Web 2.0 wave. It will define the future direction cultural institutions can explore social network and media websites for their own publicity and exhibition outreach. In the end, it is ironic; if cultural content on the social media sites represents an improvement in terms of Museum and art accessibility, i.e. it expands the reach and scope of Museums to more diverse audiences, then ARS would be performing a public disservice by entering legal action. This would signal yet another instance in which intellectual property and copyright acted as a barrier to both innovation and the free movement of ideas and beauty in society.

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