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February 20, 2007

Solving the copyright puzzle

by Josh Bernoff

The issue of copyrights on the net is subject to more polemics than any other issue I can think of. We have lawyers, saber-rattling, big media companies clashing with big Internet companies -- what could be more newsworthy? The story so far:

  • Today. Viacom said YouTube's policy to make copyright checking available only to its partners amounts to blackmail.
  • Last week. Belgian courts ruled Google couldn't use copyrighted newspaper article summaries without permission.
  • Previously. Viacom sent Google/YouTube 100,000 takedown notices and said it was negotiating in bad faith. NBC Universal's new CEO Jeff Zucker piled on.

Can't we all just get along? Obviously not. Forrester's own James McQuivey called it "a temporary setback" but I, in one of my less enlightened moods, declared that "YouTube is goin' down."

Is there a way out of this mess?

In the end, the Internet works because it can be indexed automatically. This is what makes Google work -- it's what makes everything from RSS to Technorati work. Those indexes drive traffic. The original owners of that content need the traffic. They just don't want to give up all their rights.

The solution here has to be a technical solution, because that's all that scales up. I can see a few ways out:

  • Indexing sites need to read and make copies of things. This can't be illegal or the whole Internet indexing structure collapses. So let's agree that it isn't.
  • Links are legal. Are excerpts legal? This is a fair use argument that Google has tried to live within, for example, in the way it shows small excerpts from book searches. But in general, beyond these excerpts, content owners need to be able to opt out -- it's their content. There should be a flag you can set on pages that indicates they can't be snipped.
  • Automated video and audio copyright checking is here. I spoke with Audible Magic about this technology over three years ago -- now it's pretty mature, and Gracenote does it too. Any site featuring hosted rich media that wants to work with media companies won't get far without these technologies. Myspace has already figured this out.

In the end, the Net can't move forward unless this problem gets solved. Feel free to comment if you have a solution in mind, or can point me to one. But if it's more polemical arguments, do us all a favor and don't bother.

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