No Winners in the Battle for the Internet - A shared culture
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Beyond the limited world of the financial interests of the two heavyweight protagonists, there is concern over the wider implications of the lawsuit. There have even been suggestions that a settlement is inevitable since neither side can afford to see clarification brought to the legal grey area in which the battle is being fought. And it is almost certain that for either side to lose would change the face of the Internet.
To many, YouTube has become a symbol of the cultural paradigm shift the Internet has brought about. In this view, YouTube represents an entirely new philosophy of entertainment in which people collaborate actively to create a spontaneous and shared experience, using an eclectic combination of mainstream, avant garde and DIY materials. This is only made possible by the existence of social networking sites. Where before YouTube people consumed culture and discussed it afterward, it now literally forms the landscape within which social interaction is conducted.
Richard Koman at ZDNet is one of many observers concerned by the possible cultural consequences should Viacom win the case. He accuses Viacom and other entertainment giants of using "inflexible enforcement of the letter of copyright law" to cut off at the knees "an entire generation that communicates postmodernly." From the other side of the fence the view is simpler but no less powerful: Google is making money out of content that belongs to other people. One of the most intriguing aspects of the case is whether any common ground can be found on which to reconcile two such opposing views.
It isn't just entertainment corporations who are keeping a close eye on developments. News media outlets also sense the possibility that the case could carry major implications in this most traditional of domains.
The London Independent, for example, recently ran a long article linking Viacom's complaints against YouTube to the increasing abuse of copyrighted newspaper content by blog sites. Such content, reproduced without permission, is used to generate traffic and advertising revenue, with the double impact of denying content authors their rightful share of the revenue their work earns, and simultaneously deflecting traffic and revenues from the sites where the authorized versions are published. In the view of that paper, at least, a ruling in favor of Viacom would be a positive step for the protection of content owners and creators.
So great is the divergence of views over Viacom's action against Google that it's hard to avoid the feeling that we are heading towards some sort of crisis point in the evolution of the Internet. On one hand are those who claim that victory for Viacom will lead inexorably to such a dumbing down of the Internet that it turns into cable TV you watch on your PC. At the other extreme are those who believe that YouTube already represents the ultimate in cynical financial exploitation by Google of creative endeavor to which it has no claim.
Given this extraordinary degree of polarization, and the possible major upheaval that would follow a victory for either side, perhaps the best outcome would be an out of court settlement followed by a serious rethink by all concerned about how to facilitate a reasonably liberal approach to media distribution by individuals without depriving creators and copyright owners of justifiable revenues. More likely, given the history, is the refusal of either side to give ground, and the continuation of the current stalemate until the next time. One thing at least is certain: without some recognition by the entertainment industry that times have changed and that the old models can no longer work, this battle looks set to be fought again and again.
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