The Copyright Battle in a Digital World: Where Napster Failed, Will YouTube Succeed?

“There is no absolute way to prevent people from copying the digital versions of your text, your music, your movie, or your data. If a computer will interpret the data and let someone use it, then that same computer can be programmed to grab the data and make a copy of it. The flexibility and programmability of these machines are a double-edged sword. Creating new works is substantially easier with word processors, sound editors, and other multimedia tools, but the cost is living in a world where the copyright infringers have the same advantages.” — Peter Wayner (1997) “Digital Copyright Protection” Copyright statutes have maintained an important role in American law since the country’s infancy. However, as Peter Wayner indicates, with the rise of the digital age we are faced with a totally new and unwieldy environment that greatly complicates considerations for copyright law. Whereas a century ago, an author did not have to worry about his or her work being copied, maybe altered, and redistributed, today’s technology puts the power of copyright infringement at each individual’s fingertips. A few clicks on a keyboard, some quick searching on the Internet, and an overwhelming number of books, songs and movies are available, free of charge. But there is a catch: the content appearing as “free” more often than not violates copyright laws. The problem in trying to prevent digital copyright infringement is tied up in the problem of regulating the Internet – an almost impossible feat, considering the World Wide Web today comprises more than 100 million individual Web sites. Regulators have been severely tried in recent years with the rise of peer-to-peer networks, with the most infamous being Napster. The brainchild of a 19-year-old college student, Napster launched in 1999 and revolutionized the way music sharing was conducted online. However, with such a quick rise to success comes the inevitable problems; in this case, the problems arose in the form of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and copyright lawsuits. While users of Napster saw nothing wrong with sharing music, the RIAA, which represents the four major music labels, saw the situation quite differently. By late 2000, the courts had ruled that Napster must restrict access to copyrighted files—a death-blow to the young network, for all intents and purposes.The media industry probably thought it was in the clear after the Napster fall-out, and to a degree it was, until a new source of copyright infringement rose up in 2005 and became even more widely success than Napster.
The story of YouTube, an online video-sharing network, is reminiscent of the beginnings of its music predecessor, Napster. Founded in February of 2005 by two 20-somethings, the idea for the company arose due to difficulties in sharing home videos with friends. When the site launched in May 2005, it contained about 30,000 videos. As with Napster, word of mouth allowed the company’s popularity to spread like wildfire. Less than 20 months later, visitors to the site watched 100 million videos a day. While many visitors to YouTube go to see the homemade videos, the company shares another similarity to Napster: its success is, in part, due to the illegal sharing of copyrighted files. YouTube’s terms of service forbid sharing of copyrighted materials, and the company monitors content to limit the number of violations, but copyrighted material still gets through. With such material widely popular among users of the site, the companies whose videos were being shared on thesite saw the situation differently. In March of 2006, NBC asked YouTube to remove a Saturday Night Live skit. Viacom soon followed suit, threatening action against YouTube if it did not remove clips from Comedy Central shows like South Park and The Daily Show. Many industry insiders speculated that YouTube’s fate would follow in the footsteps of Napster. Rather than sit idly by, however, YouTube took action. The company began signing licensing agreements with companies including Warner Music, Sony BMG and CBS Corp., allowing the content providers to supply the clips and share in advertising revenue. YouTube also attempted to assuage the companies’ concerns with a promise to develop new software capable of finding and removing copyrighted materials.The biggest hope for YouTube, however, lies in its acquisition by Google, the search engine giant worth approximately $130 billion, which paid $1.65 billion to purchase YouTube on Oct. 9, 2006. While this acquisition did not remove the threat of future lawsuits, most analysts believed the power of Google and its many existing media partnerships will allow YouTube to avoid Napster’s fate. Additionally, Google’s technological advantages in finding and removing copyright infringement threats go far in easing the minds of the media companies. In my opinion Google’s many existing partnerships suggest that these companies will continue to do business with a Google-owned YouTube, rather than following the legal path they did with Napster and its related music piracy companies. Fighting digital copyright infringement in the 21st century has proven a trying and, at times, near-impossible job. Technology is expanding far more quickly than the laws that regulate it, which causes ambiguity and confusion over what is legal and what constitutes infringement. The government and the courts have tried striking fast and hard, and have experienced some degree of success, as seen in the shutdown of the first iteration of Napster, and the rise of pay-per-song services like Apple iTunes and the relaunched version of Napster. The file-sharing industry appears to be learning from its mistakes and now actively tries to avoid the fate of Napster through agreements with the media corporations that own copyrights. YouTube, through its acquisition with Google, will be facing many tests in the next few years, but will most likely emerge from any legal battles in the same format it is in today. In the meantime, it is likely that digital copyright law will need to be rewritten to take into account the many changes of the last eight years that have forever altered how people communicate and share information.

Jessica Vitak, a 2008 graduate from CCT, is currently pursuing her Ph.D. at Michigan State University in Media & information Studies. She spent six years in Washington, D.C. working as an editor for PR Newswire, the global leader in news distribution and monitoring services, and later as a research intern at the Pew Internet & American Life Project. At Pew, she coauthored two major reports on online privacy and teens' gaming habits. Her master's thesis at Georgetown looked at relationship formation and maintenance on the social networking site Facebook, as well as the potential relationship between online activities and offline consequences. She is continuing her focus on online communication technology at MSU.