The YouTube purchase by Google received almost equal portions of praise and derision. The praise was driven by a belief that the purchase (along with Yahoo!’s purchase of Flickr) validated the benefits and power of free-ranging user-generated content. The derision (aside from claims that Google paid too much) was driven by the expectation that Google would drown under a flood of copyright infringement claims.
Maybe it’s time to look again at the premises of the peer-to-peer movement earlier in this decade. Before it became commonplace for sites to allow uploads of anything from communities–even commentary on articles–people were expected to keep control of their content. All kinds of collaborative filtering and search tools were tried out in the mission of helping people find each other’s content.
A lot of people assume now that peer-to-peer software would be prey to legal trouble, remembering the hot water Napster and Morpheus/KaZaa got into for copyright infringement. But one really has to be pretty brazen to get convicted of vicarious or contributory copyright infringement. The courts look for evidence that you promote the use of your software for infringement. If you’ve based your business model on content people don’t have rights to, you should get out of the business anyway.
What about the current alternative, where individuals upload their content to sites such as YouTube, Flickr, and deli.cio.us? The key provision of the DMCA that pessimists look at, when predicting doom for YouTube/Google, is the clause making site owners liable if they profit from uploaded content.
If Google displays ads while people search its site for content, is the company
profiting from the content? The business model could survive if friendly courts
realize that content aggregation sites are driving the information industry forward at this point, and accept that they need advertising to do their job.
We also have to solve this problem internationally. Some countries are more sympathetic to site owners than the U.S., and many are less.
But how about trying the old peer-to-peer model again? Hosting sites earn their
money in a more secure fashion by charging for disk space and hosting services.
The safe harbor in the DMCA applies.
Furthermore, letting people serve up their own content might lead to faster innovation. In the Flickr/YouTube model, the hosting site decides what services to offer. The content is officially owned by the person who uploaded it (and the rights to distribution are non-exclusive, allowing the owner to show it elsewhere), but in practice it is accessed through the services offered by the site.
I’m not complaining about the pace of innovation at Yahoo! or Google, where I have many friends. The threat of competition still drives these sites to try new services, because they’re very conscious that they could lose out to other sites
when creators want to upload new content. But if creators served their own content, and the data was separate from the software that managed the data, more software developers could offer services that could access any content, old or new.
Creator-controlled sites could also be managed by free software, which would gratify many proponents of free software.
To allow creators keep hold of their content, software developers had better come up with the search tools and collaborative filters that failed to make the grade in the early part of the decade. There are also two social problems with keeping content in the hands of its creators:
Some content creators can’t afford to pay for web hosting. Some of them might be able to scrape together the money by recruiting their own ads, but that’s a major undertaking.
Some content creators need to post anonymously to avoid recrimination.
In the early part of the decade, Freenet and Gnutella were developed to meet these needs (particularly the latter). They never managed to solve the search problem, largely because (in my opinion) there’s an irreconcilable conflict between anonymity and publicity. The peer-to-peer filesharing systems let you release anything you want and tag it with a meaningless identifier, but to tell people you
have an underground video shot in Iraq or North Korea, you need to leave a trail that can be traced back to you.
There should be a place on the Internet for both host-controlled sites and distributed, creator-controlled sites. For the latter, we need technical solutions.