YouTube and the ethics of copyright

YouTube is a major player in making digital copyright law ever more convoluted.

by Sam Blake

Remember kindergarten? I sure donâÄôt. But I have a good grasp of what the stereotypical kindergarten experience is supposed to be. And IâÄôm pretty confident that in kindergarten, youâÄôre usually taught that sharing is a good thing. The Internet is great for sharing, as most people have probably noticed. More often than not, people share quite a bit more than others care to see. Of course, in kindergarten weâÄôre also taught that itâÄôs wrong to take other peopleâÄôs things. Much as we may want to play with that particular set of blocks (Do you play with blocks in kindergarten? Like I said, I donâÄôt remember), we learn that it is wrong to take it if it belongs to someone else. Incidentally, the Internet is also great for taking things that belong to other people. Plagiarism and piracy are more common than ever, thanks to digital media being so easily duplicated and distributed. Of course, âÄútakingâÄù digital media is not as straightforward as taking someoneâÄôs toys. There are two issues present here, the conflation of that being what usually leads people to have long and unproductive debates on the topic. First, there is a question of legality: Is it legal in the United States to do what you want with digital media you own? As it turns out, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is a twisted behemoth of ill-informed legislation. That is, it ensures that any number of very reasonable things that you do with digital media are illegal and probably felonious to boot. The second and more relevant issue, then, is that of ethicality, which is even trickier. And if any website has served most to confound both the legal and ethical aspects of copyright, itâÄôs YouTube. People uploading movies, music, etc., that they donâÄôt own the copyrights to is pretty obviously unethical and is certainly illegal, but there are other issues that YouTubeâÄôs existence raises that are more difficult to unravel. HereâÄôs a simple case. If a copyright holder uploads its own video for whatever reason, it is free (and perfectly legal) for users to watch on YouTube whenever they want and as many times as they want, at least until the copyright holder removes it. But say you have the misfortune of living in one of the apartment complexes near campus that have appallingly slow Internet service. Since YouTube exists to let you watch videos at the time and with the frequency of your choosing, is it ethical for you to download the video from YouTube and then watch it at your leisure? The easy answer is no. Ethical behavior requires obeying the terms of the contract you agreed to by using YouTube, specifically their Terms of Service. And a thorough reading of YouTubeâÄôs TOS indicates that âÄúYou may access User Submissions [âĦ] solely as intended through the provided functionality of the YouTube Website. You shall not copy or download any User Submission.âÄù This would be straightforward enough, if it wasnâÄôt meaningless. HereâÄôs a fun fact: When you watch a video on YouTube in the âÄúintendedâÄù fashion, you are downloading a copy of it. This is cold technical fact. With about four seconds of work, you can find the copy where it resides on your computer and move it to wherever is most convenient for you. And since the âÄúintendedâÄù functionality is to get a copy of the video onto your computer that you can watch, it doesnâÄôt take a very sophisticated argument to claim that the action is perfectly ethical. IâÄôm not advocating that people intentionally break YouTubeâÄôs Terms of Service just because theyâÄôre a bit inconsistent. The spirit of the contract in this case is fairly obvious. But when using the service properly requires you to violate the TOS, there is clearly a problem. And regardless of how individuals use YouTubeâÄôs services, the companyâÄôs own behavior raises just as many issues. Viacom, parent company of more than a few film studios and television networks, is currently attempting to take legal action against Google (which owns YouTube) for allowing the hosting of works that Viacom rightfully owns. Documents in the case suggest that YouTubeâÄôs administrators intentionally allowed pirated content, under the presumption that that content is what drove traffic to the site. On the flip side, Google has shot back accusing Viacom of secretly using YouTube to market their products, then demanding that YouTube take down videos that they themselves put up. And, to make matters worse, ViacomâÄôs lawsuit has serious long-term implications for online copyright law. Currently, services like YouTube are not liable for copyright infringements so long as they take down material when requested. But if Viacom wins their case, then YouTube, and by extension any other website that links to or hosts copyrighted material (Google, Facebook and nearly every other useful website) can be held liable for material on their systems. User-submitted content, the backbone of todayâÄôs Internet, will essentially become a thing of the past, since website administrators will generally be unwilling to scrutinize everything users submit just to avoid lawsuits. The problem is the combination of our absurdly tortuous copyright law and the popular disregard for it that YouTube and its uploaders embody. As the advance of technology continues to outpace refinement of the law, we need to ensure that our laws are simple enough to be properly obeyed, but more importantly we need to ensure that weâÄôre behaving in a way that we know is ethical. If we canâÄôt handle these most basic ethical judgments, perhaps we all need to go back to kindergarten. Sam Blake welcomes comments at [email protected]