Thursday, January 15, 2009

Matt Zoller Seitz: Copy Rites--YouTube vs. Kevin B. Lee

(This is essential reading for media critics/scholars and creative artists that are concerned about the continuing restriction, censorship and control of online texts. Courtesy of Green Cine Daily)

Copy Rites: YouTube vs. Kevin B. Lee
By Matt Zoller Seitz
The House Next Door

When the history of intellectual property law is written, January 12, 2009 should be marked as a decisive moment. It was the day that my friend, fellow House Next Door contributor and sometime filmmaking partner Kevin B. Lee saw his entire archive of critical video essays deleted by YouTube on grounds that his work violated copyright.


Kevin has copies of all his work, and I'm sure it will show up again somewhere, sometime. But the obliteration of YouTube as a global platform for his voice is a crime of greater magnitude than anything he did to create the video essays in the first place. YouTube is the town square of the 21st century—rather like a gigantic virtual mall that is, technically speaking, a private space, but which operates as a public sphere: a gathering spot, a cultural and political crossroads. By scourging Kevin's work from this crossroads and banning his video essays—and, potentially, all similar work—from YouTube, the company is allowing the powerful to muzzle the near-powerless. And it is endorsing the idea that in cases involving intellectual property law and the Internet, filmmakers can be deemed guilty, silenced, then made to plead for their right to speak.

There's also an unspoken class bias at work here, a bully mentality that chooses its targets based on who's likely to fight back and win. Consider commercial TV, which is filled with programs that routinely air copyrighted material without permission for purposes of journalism, satire or simple entertainment. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report don't ask permission to air any of the news clips they slice and dice each night for yuks; they consider a network's onscreen logo to be acknowledgment enough, and their assumption is almost never challenged. Talk shows don't think twice about airing a rival network's news footage or clips from a popular or notorious TV program in order to spark a discussion or anchor a satirical montage. Infotainment shows compile film clips for use in movie star obituaries—not just electronic presskit snippets meant for PR purposes, but clips from older movies that predate EPKs and that might have originally aired on some corporate competitor's channel—and the movie's copyright holders don't object. The shows that feature such clips are routinely repurposed on the parent company's websites, often with ads and sometimes with embedding functions that allow the clip to be reproduced by bloggers, and there are not currently, to the best of my knowledge, any lawsuits seeking to stop the practice. Kings wink at each other. Peasants get the axe.

Kevin B. Lee is not Napster; he's not some guy uploading every frame of every Bette Davis movie for kicks; he's not even Goldentusk. He's a critic and scholar doing work that could be considered, at worst, compelling free ads for essential pop art. YouTube, by reflexively siding with whichever party has more money and power, has renounced its founding spirit.

There should be a way to distinguish between piracy-for-profit (or unauthorized, free redistribution) and creative, interpretive, critical or political work that happens to use copyrighted material. And there must be an alternative to unilateral takedowns. The issues aren't just legal, they're practical. History has demonstrated that there's no copyright protection that can't be defeated, no corporate edict that can't be subverted. And given the technological sophistication that permits digital watermarking, there ought to be a way to make sampling of any sort, authorized or not, scaled to suit the filmmakers' means, profitable for the rights holders, and as fully automated as the copyright-infringement-scouring that's currently happening all over the Internet.

Whatever the solutions, they should be something other than one-size-fits-all. Digital watermarking abusers are engaged in an unwinnable war—one that, in its present state, will only produce collateral damage and make them increasingly unsympathetic, and therefore more likely to be demonized and resisted. The entertainment industry's unwillingness to recognize the plain fact that people have complex, idiosyncratic and yes, possessive relationships to songs, films and TV shows—relationships that are qualitatively different from their relationships to cars, hats, shoes and beer—contributes to a culture of calcified mutual resentment, and a public mindset (manifested most vividly in generations that cannot remember life before the Internet) that sees big entertainment companies as lead-footed dopes—Elmer Fudd blasting every rabbit hole in sight hoping to hit Bugs Bunny.

The situation as it stands is immoral, untenable and, I believe, a violation of fundamental rights. Almost nobody taking part in the early phases of digital media has the money to fight the Googles and Viacoms of the world, and of course that's what the takedown gremlins are counting on; injustice not resisted eventually becomes tradition. I fervently hope some brave, knowledgeable lawyer will see that there's more at stake here than the ethics of ripping and posting scenes from movies, and make a test case of Kevin's unconscionable treatment. The circumstances may seem mundane, but the implications are grim as can be. When individuals and governments permit corporations to dictate the terms by which their culture may be examined, the First Amendment becomes just another pile of words.

To Read the Entire Essay

More on these issues, available technologies, and examples of video/film-clip essays online (most of them cited in the above essay and the comments section):

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Insomniac Dad

Shooting Down Pictures: Uh, Oh, Storm's Brewing

Shooting Down Pictures

They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

Moving Image Source: The Films of Oliver Stone

Moving Image Source: The Opening Credits of The Wire

Scanners: Close-Up--The Movie/Essay Dream

Scanners: Dark Knight #1--What is Wrong With This Picture?

The House Next Door: The Close-Up Blog-a-Thon

Handbrake: DVD to MPEG Converter

Squared 5: MPEG Streamclip Video Converter

40 Inspriational Speeches in 2 Minutes


Wikipedia: Digital Watermarking


Insomniac Dad: Berkeley(esque)

Insomniac Dad: A Little Love--The Art of Bill Melendez (Peanuts Animator)

Kristin Thompson: Fair is Still Fair, and More So

Film Studies For Free: Shooting Down YouTube--Bring Back Kevin Lee's Videos!

Karina Longworth: YouTube Cracking Down on Critical Video Essays

Social Media: Video Sharing Script

Googl's Counter Notification Process (to object to removal of materials) which is part of the larger explanation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act

Online Policy Group vs Diebold

Center for Social Media: Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Online Video

Sasha Frere Jones: Notube (The New Yorker)

Green Cine Daily: The Revolution Will Not Be YouTubed

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