November 3, 2006
The Fans Aren't Laughing: YouTube and Comedy Central

Censorship is still in the air, or clearing up copyright infringement, depending on which side of the coin they are on. The popularity of YouTube and other ways of sharing video and music has proven that fans believe it is their right to share clips (and some even whole episodes or albums). And we've seen varied reactions.

There are musicians like Weird Al, who believe their success stems in part from their popularity on YouTube, or else Keith Olbermann, whose popularity has grown due to the surge in popularity of his work on YouTube as well.

On the other side of the coin, there are journalists like Robert Tur, American companies,and even collective entertainment entities in whole countries like Japan ready to pull content down or file a lawsuit.

There is a different feeling of sympathy, it seems, from sharing one song or clips from a show, versus sharing a full album or full films or shows using these devices. That has been part of the distinction that has led to some of the discussion around Comedy Central clips being pulled from YouTube. This week on The Colbert Report, Stephen mentioned the controversy, attempting to put heat on YouTube/Google itself for making money on user-generated content without giving any of the money made to the creators.

Some debate continues about how much Comedy Central content is being pulled from YouTube. FishBowlNY distinguishes between clips under five minutes and clips that are more than five minutes. Howard Owens warns that there's been too much made of pulling these clips down, as the number of Comedy Central Clips is still large. This is what Colbert emphasized on his show as well.

The decision to pull clips from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report in particular led to open letters like this from a grassroots marketer for the show, Sean Coon, who writes in an open letter to Comedy Central executives, "You've now rendered a good number of my posts useless -- posts that were marketing your shows for free. That's right, you had thousands of fans, like me, pointing to and contextualizing clips from their blogs, generating millions of page views and legions of new viewers and you killed it because they weren't your page views. So dumb."

And Mark Glaser with Mediashift writes an open letter to Colbert, saying, "While those lawyers have legal standing to do this, it goes against the spirit of Internet sharing and viral promotion -- two phenomena that have helped make your show so popular in the first place. It just doesn't sound like you, Stephen, baby."

Places like Red Herring are reporting that the controversy is part of an ongoing effort for YouTube and Viacom to reach a deal regarding Comedy Central clips on the site, based on comments received from a Viacom spokesperson, and Reuters confirms this tactic.

And Joe Wikert gives good advice when he says:

Comedy Central (and other) content will undoubtedly disappear for a bit from YouTube. Look for it to reappear with advertisements rolled in. That's all the content owners really want, a piece of a revenue pie. They can't be too greedy though; as I've also noted before, the online revenue base is going to be much, much smaller than the one they're used to capturing via cable. Those who opt for greed will disappear from YouTube and never come back. Good luck to those folks as they try to build their own traffic; better to have a small slice of something than to have 100% of nothing.

This debate will be ongoing, and many argue that Comedy Central is not exactly out of line in wanting to pull clips off that are over five minutes in length. But this happening so soon after the Google purchase is making a lot of fans uneasy at the future of user-generated content.

And the news just keeps rolling in. Now, MySpace announced, on Monday, that it would use a music filtering site to keep unauthorized use of popular songs off its music sharing function for the News Corp.-owned social networking site. MySpace will employ Gracenote, which has a filtering system for musical content to handle these issues. This technology will review content when first uploaded by users.

In the end, fans seem willing to work with concerns of copyright to some degree, but they are a little sensitive right now toward the loss of what has become an empowering tool for them right now, sharing and promoting shows by being able to use clips and examples. As companies consider what should be done, they always must keep in mind Henry Jenkins' warning not to take the you out of YouTube.

By the way, it's important to note that Comedy Central is in the family of MTV Networks, one of our partners here at the Convergence Culture Consortium.