Internet video is thriving in other respects, too. Not just YouTube but Apple TV, Windows Media Center, Hulu, and more are making it possible for computers and mobile devices to deliver programming normally associated with television. (YouTube, for example, in a bid for growth and revenue, is offering premium channels with short-form content from entertainment titans Disney, ABC, and ESPN.) Boxee, a New York City startup, is bringing things full circle with a browser that enables you to play any media available over the Internet on your TV screen; the interface is designed for easy use from across the living room.
Against this backdrop, there initially seems little to dislike about YouTube. But its sheer size makes it an easy and tempting target for filtering by national governments (Iran, for one, has done just that). The result is that video can, in some contexts, be censored more effectively than other forms of Web content. Similarly, YouTube is a convenient target for legal action by media companies trying to protect copyright, sometimes in ways that overstep the bounds of common sense. Two years ago Stephanie Lenz, a Pennsylvania mother, got an e-mail from YouTube announcing that it had taken down her shaky 29-second movie of her toddler son, Holden, giggling and dancing as the Prince hit “Let’s Go Crazy” played distortedly in the background. YouTube explained that it was responding to a request from the Universal Music Publishing Group, which owns the rights to the song. She argued that her video represented “fair use,” and it was reposted. But she decided to sue Universal Music, claiming that it was abusing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. (Universal Music later said it had issued thousands of so-called takedown notices on behalf of Prince alone; the Artist himself is fanatical on the subject.)
While artists have every right to thwart wholesale copying, such crackdowns on incidental, noncommercial use–which is generally quite legal–can inflict collateral damage on innovation. “When people make their own mixes of existing material and YouTube takes that down, this is a huge inhibitor to this kind of commonplace creativity that the Web enables,” says Abigail De Kosnik, a professor of new media at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of Illegitimate Media: Minority Discourse and the Censorship of Digital Remix Culture. “What people need to realize is that too much of those kinds of protections and [technology] restrictions–and right now, without open video, we have too much of both–inhibits new genres from emerging.”
Finally, the need to generate revenue is driving YouTube further toward a centralized, television-like model, with advertising-supported premium content. In short, while it’s never been easier for the average Internet user to find and consume video online, you can’t easily adapt or reuse what you find in the vast body of video out there. “The video box that you see on YouTube is a whole bunch of different formats inside this plug-in that isn’t manipulable, transformable, or remixable in the way that everything else on the Web is,” says Mark Surman, executive director of Mozilla. You can’t even download videos you play on YouTube–at least not without help from third-party websites or software.
YouTube sees little need to add features such as downloading tools. “We haven’t gotten enough feedback that we need downloads,” Nikhil Chandhok, a YouTube senior product manager, said at a recent conference in New York City. “You are mostly connected all the time … and can access any YouTube video you want.” Even if you do go to the trouble of using third-party services to download videos, if you want to do anything creative with those videos, your work has just begun. You will need to convert various formats, buy video editing tools, and learn to use them. (Walk did not want to talk about open standards, except to say that the company has “been about a lot of kinds of openness early” in terms of expanding access to video itself. Of course, making video easier to work with outside of YouTube would tend to threaten YouTube’s dominance.)