When Google bought the fledging, but popular video sharing site, YouTube, for $1.6 billion in early October of 2006, it created a firestorm of controversy surrounding the transaction. It seemed like we were back again in 1999, the height of the Internet bubble.
Google itself had actually launched its own video sharing site months prior to the acquisition. I had actually never visited the YouTube site, but had begun to check out some of the Google videos, mostly motorcycle stunt and race clips. Some praised Google for its quick action in grabbing a popular site instead of pouring cash and resources in its own service. But many were convinced that Google had overpaid. The acquisition translated to instant wealth for the YouTube executives and employees. Even the administrative assistant there became an over-night millionaire. Then began the task of integrating YouTube into the Google roster of products, the way it had been done a few years earlier with Blogger.
But it wasn't too long before the copyright monster started to rear its ugly head. Only a few days after the buyout announcement, YouTube acceded to the Japanese media's complaints by removing some 30,000 of their clips from its site. Obviously media companies weren't sanguine about having their work pirated and put on display on YouTube to begin with, but YouTube was a startup with little money. There was little to be gained by dragging a cash-poor company to court. But this was a different matter, Google was a titan, flushed with money and a rich valuation and the media was smelling blood.
The next big copyright news came on early February 2007 when Viacom demanded the removal of 100,000 clips from YouTube that it claimed to have had copyrights to. Finally the hammer fell today as Viacom came out swinging with a $1 billion lawsuit claiming that YouTube and its parent, Google, had failed to protect Viacom's copyright interests in regards to 160,000 videos on its site. There is speculation that the lawsuit is sour grapes, stemming from the fact that the two companies had failed to reach a licensing pact. It's difficult to predict the outcome of this litigation, but for its part YouTube maintains that it has and continues to make all reasonable efforts in protecting owners' rights on its site.
All this has some people questioning Google's initial decision to acquire YouTube and therefore find itself mired in the legal mess. But if Google had succeeded with its own video sharing site, it would have found itself in the same situation today, albeit at a lesser cost than the YouTube's purchase price. What I wonder is what effect all this distraction will have on nurturing and growing YouTube.
I, as a user, have been on YouTube a few times now. The user-generated clips of practical jokes and humorous situations were amusing at first, but the novelty quickly wore off. What I have generally been viewing consists of bits and pieces of news, educational material (mostly technology related), music videos, and nostalgic clips of old Persian TV. I assume most of these videos are copyrighted, and if complaints and subsequent removals continue, YouTube would soon have nothing for me to watch. I admit, some user-created material there have redeeming quality. I found this one very thought provoking, for example. But I even wonder if at some point this video will be axed as it plays a Pink Floyd tune in its introductory portion.
I have to admit that there was one genre of videos on YouTube I would watch for which I was labeled (deservedly) immature and childish by my family. These were clips of a popular 80's televangelist, Robert Tilton, embellished with audible flatulence perfectly synchronized with his contorted facial expressions. Guess what, those clips have also been removed, replaced by the following note: "This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by Reverend Robert Tilton." If the good Pastor succeeded in having YouTube delete these comedic but otherwise useless clips, I wonder if YouTube is on the proverbial slippery slope of losing the majority of its assets and thus its audience.