YouTube and copyright: the Platonic solution

The lawyers now want a shot at YouTube.  All that copyright in violation  All that  intellectual property at risk.  All those hours ripe for billing.  Brother, can you hook a lawyer up?   

There is a simple solution, a way to keep them out: make certain the quality of YouTube remains deplorable.  This will indicate that we are not posting the original clip from Borat, but a representation of the first form.  It isn’t pretty…and that’s a good thing.   

The YouTube version is a copy.  It’s purpose is indexical.  It exists to point to the Platonic original.  It does not pretend to duplicate the original, anymore than a road sign for New York City duplicates New York City.  So enough of the lawyerly anxiety that says if copying is allowed, copyright is void.  There are copies…and there are originals.  The imperfections of YouTube help make this distinction clear.  Only an idiot or a lawyer would confuse them.

Or, let’s think about this from an economic and anthropological point of view. This is  the difference between stealing and borrowing.  When we steal, we make ourselves the beneficiary of value that someone else has created.  When we borrow, for these  YouTube purposes, we create value for ourselves without diminishing value for the owner. 

But of course, on the internet, borrowing actually results in value augmentation for the owner.  My use of your material gives you exposure. As long as the quality is bad enough, no one is going to pay me…or not pay you.  This point is now "standard issue" wisdom in the internet economy.  I don’t know who said it first.  Doc Searls?  But everyone gets this, including the likes of Mark Cuban.  The lawyers should really stay in more.

More social scientifically, when we "borrow" something to show on YouTube, we have effectively nominated ourselves as diffusion agents.  Without the first, second and third adopters, many world transforming innovations would languish at the precipice of Geoffrey Moore’s chasm. This too is entirely clear.  I can’t believe in a time of very noisy markets and positively Amazonian competition that producers wouldn’t want every diffusion partner that comes their way.  I can’t believe they would want to shut themselves out of the wisdom crowds. 

The problem here may be one of vested interest.  Every profession has found a way to make itself the beneficiary of the new economies and cultures that the internet has opened up.  Lawyers, on the other hand, have not been quite so well served.  I don’t say we should doubt their motives when they call for the protection of copyright.  Um, yes I do.

3 thoughts on “YouTube and copyright: the Platonic solution

  1. Rob Fields

    I think this really is, as you point out, an issue of diffusion. As the marketplace fragments and subdivides even more, and mass media continues to show declining efficiencies, content producers will need partners to give them the reach and penetration they once enjoyed out of course. And I think its even more critical when what’s at stake is not just communications effectiveness, but cultural relevance.

  2. Tom Asacker

    I’m not so sure about the argument, Grant. If time and attention are, in fact, the scarce commodities today, who’s to say whether audiences will gravitate towards the original, rather than continue to consume free, albeit lower quality, Cliff-Notes-type reproductions.

  3. Graham Hill


    I think it is also about that old bugbear, “control”.

    Companies want to control their creations as far as possible. Particularly, channels to market. Control is part of the comfortable illusion that management creates for itself through things like strategy away-days, marketing plans and budgetting.

    It reminds me of the recent tussle between Tesco & Asda and the makers of certain luxury goods. Both supermarkets sourced bona-fide grey imports from non-EU sources and sold them at much lower than MRP to the eager public. The luxury goods owners objected because they had no control over how their products went to market. The European Court supported the luxury goods owners. The supermarkets ignored the Court anyway.

    If Tom Asacker is right (of course he is!) and all a brand is is a series of emotions and the associated feelings that a customer has about it, then heaven help the brand if the feelings it evokes are generated in response to heavy-handed attempts to control brands by marketers and lawyers.

    Graham Hill

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