The last week has been a surreal one for fans of fake news. TV shows such as Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” have had huge boosts in their popularity thanks to online communities, who share video clips and summaries from each show. But the corporate parent to Comedy Central, Viacom, was a bit blind to that fact when it asked video-sharing site YouTube to pull down video clips from those shows that had been posted by fans.
I wrote an open letter to Colbert, praising him for his show’s use of the Internet — getting fans to stuff online ballot boxes for him, change Wikipedia entries, and mash up video of Colbert. But I also thought the video takedown didn’t make sense, and showed that the suits at Viacom didn’t get it.
Soon after that posting, bloggers noted that many Comedy Central video clips were still up at YouTube. After a whole stream of mainstream media and blog reports decried the takedowns, the tone started to change as people wondered whether there were only a handful of takedowns or it was more widespread. Meanwhile, Viacom released a vague statement that didn’t say much, and YouTube remained silent. Various unnamed sources implied that Viacom and YouTube were in negotiations, and that Viacom’s takedown letters were part of the negotiations to get more out of YouTube.
Then the meme shifted from “Viacom takes down all YouTube clips” to “Viacom makes deal with YouTube and clips are back.” Unfortunately for harried reporters, neither meme was true. The real truth is that you can’t just take down all Viacom clips from YouTube. You can disable the clips you find, you can send out cease-and-desist letters, but you can’t likely find everything without a huge amount of resources — and you can’t control what someone will post in the next hour or next day without using even more resources.
And let’s say that you do remove all Viacom clips from YouTube. Well, what about the clips that are on MetaCafe or other video-sharing services? What about Joe Blow’s blog? What about Jane Doe’s video blog? What about my email attachment to friends? With digital technology, you’re not going to eliminate copyright infringements (if these even are infringing and not fair use) from happening, as it’s like trying to close Pandora’s Box long after its opening.
Blogger Jeff Reifman decided to try to track what was happening to a sample of Comedy Central clips on YouTube. He found that:
Of 897 Daily Show videos on YouTube sampled, 699 were missing or broken. That’s nearly 78% of Daily Show videos now taken down for alleged copyright infringement without any regard for fair use from what I can tell. When is YouTube going to give its community an explanation? And Viacom? Negotiations don’t seem to be going well as previously reported.
The situation is so weird, that a search on Google News brings up the following conflicting headlines:
And of course, you’ve got the expected competitive move:
With all the hubbub, misinformation and sketchy details on a backroom deal, leave it to the fake-news anchor in the eye of the storm, Colbert, to actually deliver the most meaningful take on this of all. Last night on his TV show, Colbert took on the topic in his signature feature, “The Word,” where he concluded that everyone will come out happy in the end: the “crazy web watchers,” who want their clips on YouTube; the media companies, who will cut a deal with YouTube; and Google, who will figure a way to make money on homemade videos.
Colbert might not have won over his angry online fans, many of whom felt like the piece was a direct attack on them. But he showed more eptitude on the subject of new media and Google than many “serious” journalists who are covering the situation. The full video of that segment is linked here from — where else? — YouTube, with a transcript of what he said below.
[UPDATE: Of course, the video has been pulled off of YouTube, with a note saying that Comedy Central asked for it to be yanked. You can now find the same video here on a website called Colbert on Demand. Not sure how long this site will last…]
The full text of “The Colbert Report” show’s segment on “The Word” on Wednesday night:
Earlier this week it was widely reported that clips of the Colbert Report would be removed from YouTube due to network copyright concerns. [a few boos from the audience] Well, Nation, I don’t know how that rumor got started. I think, maybe because my parent company put out a press release saying that it would happen. [laughter] Now I was pretty worried about the removal of our clips, I was worried that it was going to hurt you, the heroes. But I was even more worried it was going to hurt the other heroes, corporations…
Which brings us to tonight’s word, “Rip-Off.” This story really struck a nerve with a lot of people. On one side you’ve got analysts buzzing that Google’s been ripped off, wasting $1.65 billion on another Napster dud. On the other, you’ve got media companies saying they’ve been ripped off by kids posting their content leaving them no choice but to yank their copyrighted material. And of course, you’ve got the YouTube audience saying they’ve been ripped off, because The Man has ruined their favorite way to burn an afternoon on company time. [subdued laughter] Folks, they all believe they’re the ones being screwed. And they’re all wrong.
Look at it this way. Until Google stepped in, YouTube was like “Lord of the Flies.” Unsupervised kids becoming video heroes for fleeting moments only to be usurped by an even less supervised kid riding downhill on a bike with his jacket on fire . It was chaotic, it was uncontrollable — worst of all, it was not making any money. But this situation is Google’s specialty. Taking something useless, say, your web searches, and turning them into cash with tiny targeted ads for big boner pills. And now that Google’s got YouTube, they’re gonna work that same magic on your independent short, hitting the guy in the head with a shovel [plays video of just that].
And the media companies that are supposedly getting ripped off… Folks, they’ll be OK. Insiders are saying that as much as one-third of YouTube’s $1.65 billion price tag will be used to settle copyright issues. I imagine the deals read something like this: ‘Hey dudes, Google here. Here’s $50 million. Leave YouTube alone or we’ll take our $162 billion market capitalization and buy your ass.’ Of course, these corporate back-room deals haven’t been technically confirmed. But guess what, web whiners? Despite all those headlines, if you go to YouTube, you’ll still find a healthy collection of threatdowns. [graphics come on for “Threat Down”]
So the crazy web watchers get their clips. The media corporations will get their money. Google will get their ad revenue. It’s perfect. There’s absolutely nobody who deserves money, who’s not getting it. So kids, whether you’re watching this on TV or on YouTube, keep stuffing your cats into fishbowls and doing physical harm to each other, because this is now a money-making machine, and it can’t run without your free fuel. And that’s the word. We’ll be right back…
What do you think? Was Colbert being too flip, or does he make a valid point? Do you think Viacom and YouTube will really come to an agreement? Share your thoughts in the comments below.