April 28, 2008

YouTube and Google Book Search: Pain, Delight, and Copyright

Greetings. Much has been written regarding the legal aspects of copyright in the Internet age, but far less about the visceral conflicts that many of us feel about these issues in the real world of our daily Net use. I'm going to skip the former to concentrate on the latter in this missive.

Google, with their vast scale and immense technical competence, is in the bulls-eye of many copyright debates, and represents a useful case study in this regard, as many persons' reactions to Google services can be at least as much emotional as logical.

Not that there's anything at all wrong with emotion. But it can add a complicating dimension to any analysis (just ask Mr. Spock). There's no getting away from it though, particularly in regards to Google Book Search and Google's YouTube services.

Though it may not be obvious at first glance, Book Search and YouTube may be reasonably viewed as being at opposite ends of the "copyright emotion" spectrum, bringing users a heady mix of both delight and pain. We begin with ...

Google Book Search


During my years at UCLA decades ago, I used to love wandering the many libraries' stacks (silent except for the constant and relaxing purr of ventilators) while pulling books essentially at random to explore. Old, new, it didn't matter -- topic was of only secondary importance and I picked up a fair bit of random information that way, including much that's been of surprising usefulness over the years.

Google Book Search presents a similar -- and more accessible -- opportunity for that same sort of exploration, and will become ever more powerful in this regard as time goes by and additional books continue to be added to their scanned collection.

You can spend endless hours if you wish, freely exploring the vast virtual libraries on Book Search, in many cases even downloading full PDFs of books to portable devices. It's a true joy, though for all its glory it can be but a glimpse through a tiny keyhole at a future of global access to mankind's stored knowledge, that's impossible to really picture from this vantage point in time.

And yet ...

The Pain

Book Search also is painful to use from an emotional standpoint. Painful because typically (on works not in the public domain) only partial text results are available, or perhaps only very brief snippets -- both in keeping with Google's interpretation of their rights and restrictions under copyright law (and a matter of continuing controversy).

The inability to see full text whenever you want to is frustrating. It's irritating. It's painful. You want to see it all and you want to see it now. At such moments, if you could find a no-charge "Ignore copyright and proceed to full text" button to click, you'd likely be there as fast as you could move the mouse, even though you'd know deep down it really would be the wrong thing to do.

I assert that even the most ardent supporter of copyright status-quo probably feels these conflicting emotions when faced with Book Search snippets and partial texts. The urge for instant gratification is very strong, especially when dealing with materials that may still be under copyright but out of mainstream availability for many years -- so-called "orphaned" works that have been buried out of sight and out of mind, but often still with glories of their own to reveal.



Even arguably more so than with Google Book Search, YouTube, over the very short span of its existence to date, has become a powerful mirror of humanity and society -- of a scope that is almost impossible to grasp. I sometimes toy around trying to calculate how much disk space Google might now devote to YouTube videos and associated processing. I wouldn't publicly dare to even hazard a guess. "Really Big" is as far as I'll go except in private.

But apart from sheer scale, the breadth of YouTube's offerings are nothing short of unimaginably astounding, especially with some thoughtful searches. I often say that virtually everything you can imagine, and then some, is on YouTube. From the most sublime to the sordid indeed, events new and memories old. Amateur, professional, originals, covers and knockoffs -- every possible combination from all manner of humanity young, old and in-between. Whether a Hollywood-scope presentation, a crude video of someone spinning an ancient 45rpm record from beginning to end, or even an old commercial that now is genuine memorabilia, it's all there under the YouTube umbrella.

I've seen persons who had absolutely no interest in the Internet watch in fascination when shown how they could find old clips of their favorite performers from many years ago. Lost cartoons from our youths, TV and movie outtakes we've never seen before, so many memories recent or cobweb-laden, all suddenly resurrected by the vast armies of YouTube uploaders. A true wonder of the world.

And yet ...

The Pain

While watching so many of these video wonders that can bring such joy, or even contemplating downloading them for permanent reference, it's hard not to frequently feel painful pangs of ... well ... guilt. We may immensely enjoy what we see, but it's hard to banish from the back of your mind the realization that so many of these materials -- probably most in the case of old mainstream entertainment-oriented videos -- shouldn't really be there at all. That many of those goodies are still under copyright is obvious, as is the copyright holder in lots of cases.

Such items are available on YouTube at all due the confluence of the immense volumes of videos being uploaded to the service daily, and the lack of materials being routinely prescreened before becoming available on YouTube itself. Copyright holders cannot possibly keep track of such vast numbers of submissions even if they wanted to, and automated content "fingerprinting" technologies are likely to be applied mainly to more "high profile" content at least for the time being -- and their long-run effectiveness is not yet entirely clear.

Nor would it be practical for Google to have human beings trying to prescreen all materials, even if the criteria for accepting or rejecting a given item were always obvious (which is certainly not the case). The DMCA, for all its many faults, does accept the accurate, fundamental premise that it's generally impractical for service providers to prescreen submitted materials in a high-volume Internet environment.

But here's the part that's the most painful. We don't really want those "offending" items to vanish from YouTube. When you find a marvelous old clip that someone uploaded, and even if it's clear that it's almost certainly a copyrighted item uploaded without permission, is our reaction to report the uploader? Or is it to enjoy the clip, murmur a silent thank you to the uploading party, and perhaps check out their YouTube profile to see what other fun items they may have in waiting for us to view? If we're honest with ourselves I dare say that the natural response is the latter one -- I know it is for me.

Like the classic film sequence of an angel and daemon arguing as someone tries to make up their mind about an ethical dilemma (think of the late night football field scene from "Animal House" ...) part of us says, "You know, that video shouldn't be there." But another piece of our mind is saying, "Wow! That's great! Give me more!"

The Dilemma

When it comes to copyrighted materials, Google Book Search whets our appetites with excerpts and snippets, but emotionally we want to see immediately what copyright law prevents us from seeing -- the whole kit and caboodle.

YouTube does something of the opposite with even stronger emotional impact. We can see (and hear) practically anything, however the honest observer knows that much of what's there are likely or obvious copyright violations. But the thought of losing access to such wonderful stuff, especially those orphaned works that bring back memories from long ago, is a conflicting force that urges us all to "leave well enough alone." Nod nod, wink wink. Back to the vids.

This dilemma is a direct result of the fundamental changes taking place in the very nature of information, mostly driven by the Internet. Google is at the center of these issues today, but even without a Google this path was inevitable. Google's success and scale has moved these controversies onto the center stage more rapidly than might have otherwise occurred, but Google itself is not the "copyright problem," nor can they be expected to somehow wave a magic wand and create a quick solution, especially given the conflicted feelings we all possess about copyright vs. access to information.

What's to do? Can technology help steer us toward any kind of "meeting of the minds" that could help untangle the copyright knot in an Internet world? I believe so, but not by itself, and I plan to outline some specific ideas about this soon.

But until we're willing to admit that traditional concepts of copyright are becoming increasingly diluted and in many cases even meaningless in today's environment, progress is likely to be slower than we'd like. One need not necessarily be enthusiastic about the mutation (or death?) of traditional copyright, but not to accept it as a truth is to bury one's head in the sand.

Google Book Search and YouTube are but two examples of the dilemma, of the delight and pain surrounding copyright and all it has represented for both good and ill over the years. No quick solutions, but the times they are a-changin', and technology will inevitably change copyright. You can bet your YouTube account on it.


Posted by Lauren at April 28, 2008 05:50 PM | Permalink
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