Tuesday, May 24, 2011

YouTube's Copyright School, Pirating vs. Fair Use

A couple of months ago, Youtube published a video aimed at educating young people about copyright, featuring (and made by the creators of) The Happy Tree Friends. Entitled YouTube Copyright School, the video relays a lot of the same kind of info found in the anti-piracy ads you see at the cinema - albeit in a humorous and much less cloying format. I've embedded the video below:

Specifically, the video explains copyright infringement - going over the different components of its official/legal definitions, and what that could mean in terms of repercussions.

What I'm particularly interested in is the video's treatment of fair use. This portion of the video starts at 2min:35 sec and ends near the 3min:00sec mark. Here, the voiceover states that
"Mashups or remixes of content may also require permission from the original copyright owner, depending on whether or not the use is a "fair use."
It then breezes through a definition of fair use...and really this paragraph is read out at lightening speed, in a sort of jumbled cadence that makes it seem much more complicated than it is. A sharp contrast to the slow and considered description of copyright infringement given just moments before. Not only is the pacing and tone different, but the language used is different as well.
"In the United States, copyright law allows for the fair use of copyrighted material under certain limited circumstances without prior permission from the owner......"
For some reason, the definition of fair use isn't written in child-friendly language, or read at an easy-to-follow speed. Everything else in the video is relayed in an accessible, child-friendly language. Why not this? In the end, the video makes it seem as though fair use is way too complicated for anyone but a lawyer to even begin to understand. No mention at all is made of fair use protections for parody, commentary/criticism, etc., or of the importance of key factors such as the amount or portion used (in relation to the work as a whole) and whether the purpose of use is commercial or non-commercial.

Another problematic framing occurs in the video's explanation of the counter-notification process: the user's right to contest or respond when a claim of copyright infringement has been made against them. It's great that the video touches on this, AND of course that Youtube has an easy to use form for counter-notification. But in the very next breath, the music and voiceover become markedly foreboding -- warning that if the process is ever misused, the user could end up in court. It then states, "And then you would get in a lot of trouble. That's how the law works." The overall result is that counter-notification is presented as a dubious and risky process to get involved in. Not exactly encouraging or even all that accurate of a depiction of users' rights here.

It may also be worth pondering how this particular representation of copyright compares to the site's own policies when it comes to the authorship rights of its users. For instance, while Youtube does indeed acknowledge that its users retain full ownership of their original content/creations, they also claim worldwide royalty-free license to use/reproduce, etc. that content anywhere and anyhow. Here's the relevant excerpt from their Terms of Service agreement:
"For clarity, you retain all of your ownership rights in your Content. However, by submitting Content to YouTube, you hereby grant YouTube a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform the Content in connection with the Service and YouTube's (and its successors' and affiliates') business, including without limitation for promoting and redistributing part or all of the Service (and derivative works thereof) in any media formats and through any media channels."
Nothing very unique about this particular set of claims, but it's noteworthy that they aren't included in the Youtube Copyright School overview either. Which is kind of puzzling I think, particularly given that the video positions itself as educating users about the subtleties of copyright on Youtube. Additionally, corporate TOS claims over user submissions are some of the least talked about and least understood (not to mention questionable) dimensions of online copyright out there right now. AND one that all users -- not just those using borrowed/stolen materials -- become embroiled in the moment they upload a video or post a comment.

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