When in London last October, I had dinner with a buddy who was a big YouTube fan. He's a serious mucky-muck for CNN Europe and worried about copyright infringement, but liked knowing that topical issues would be instantly uploaded and viewable, like the Michael Richards (of Seinfeld fame) comedy club meltdown that occurred about six weeks after my return. A former high school wrestler, he had always wanted to see Dan Gable's legendary final collegiate match, where, after going undefeated for four years, Gable got soundly trounced and ended up 180-1. One day he looked on YouTube, and there it was. I was interested, but still resisted visiting the site.
Shortly thereafter I was having dinner out with my daughters and the elder drew three winsome women on a napkin, calling them "earth, wind, and fire." Having gone to college in the '70s, I immediately started singing "Way of the World." Luckily for them, I went to college in the '70s, and couldn't remember all the words.
When we got home, I started searching for a "Way of the World" MP3, and not having much luck, I then thought to search on YouTube. Within seconds, we had full-screen video of Maurice White on my upstairs Apple Cinema display, and the girls started to move.
My thoughts then jumped to Donna Summer. I'd recently sung Summer's "On the Radio" to them while we were playing a game in the car. I found it on YouTube, one thing led to another, and before I knew it, my wife came home and found us dancing to Donna Summer in the dining room. And, of course, she joined us.
Then the girls took over. They wanted to see Elvis singing "Heartbreak Hotel," a song they'd learned to sing years before. Then The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, and The Rolling Stones singing "You Can't Always Get What You Want." They didn't even mind when I joined Bruce Springsteen in a live rendition of "Jungle Road" from 1978. Then my wife turned the girls on to The B-52's ("Love Shack"), The Go-Go's ("Our Lips Are Sealed"), and The Bangles ("Walk Like an Egyptian"), which they now think is the coolest song ever recorded.
My girls, whose entire vision of rock and roll had been formed by cross-marketed synthetic Disney "rock stars," had an epiphany. They now have some sense that rock and roll is more than quick cuts, fast smiles, and synchronized dancing. It's soul, talent, and gritty perseverance, living the life and loving the moment. It's real.
I digress. Then we saw John F. Kennedy issue his famous "Ask not . . ." challenge to the American people in his 1961 inaugural, which they'd heard me imitate as I attempted to demonstrate accents from around the country. Then it was time for bed, history lesson over, and a lovely night to be repeated but never duplicated.
That's nice, Jan, but what's the point? Pretty much every video we viewed was a gross violation of someone's copyright. Take these videos away, and YouTube is a glorified collection of America's Funniest Home Videos with the occasional Michael Richards or Corey Lidle plane crash guerrilla news-reporting thrown in.
Enforcing the copyright on the majority of the videos that make YouTube such a treasure trove would eliminate the greatest compilation of pop culture ever assembled and an incredibly significant historical resource. There's literally nowhere else I could go to take the interactive trip I took with my daughters, and its historical and personal value was irreplaceable. Where else could they see and hear the world that was here before they were, on-demand and a click or two away? I never had that opportunity, and now that they do, I'd hate to see it taken away.
There's a legal principle called "eminent domain" that essentially gives the government the right to seize private property for public use. As far as I know, it's only been applied to real estate, but perhaps it's been extended elsewhere, and in this instance, it seriously needs to be considered for the low-bit rate, highly degraded, commercially unusable but richly valuable videos in YouTube, so the private interests who have legal claims to this content can't snatch it away. At the very least, some copyright exemption needs to be carved out that allows their use in this application. Perhaps it's after a certain number of years, perhaps at a certain bit rate, but these YouTube videos are a national treasure and need to be treated accordingly—even as the site passes into Google's hands and begins to be refashioned to make money.
So, why the Glieck quote that kicked off this column? Back in 1985, I was working for Deloitte and wrote a story for Inc Magazine recounting how some sloppily written provisions in the U.S. Tax Code had been wrongfully applied to overtax stock-option gains. About a year later, I got an envelope from Deloitte's Washington, D.C. bureau with a photocopy of the Congressional record. Seems Congress had rewritten that provision to avoid the result I had criticized. The congressman who introduced the bill had read my article out loud to Congress in support of his legislation. Sometimes, inexplicably, a butterfly flapping its wings in Tahiti can, in fact, produce a tornado in Kansas. Here's hoping it happens again.
Jan Ozer is a frequent contributor to industry magazines and websites on digital video-related topics and the author of Adobe Digital Video How-Tos: 100 Essential Techniques with Adobe Production Studio published by Peachpit Press.