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4/24/2007
04:10 PM
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Viacom Takes Out The Wrong Garbage

Anybody who has ever worked with computers knows the old adage "garbage in, garbage out." Besides the most obvious interpretation, this phrase also expresses the truth that, in the end, it's the human element that determines the value of a computer's output. However, taking the human element out of your processes completely can also result in some very embarrassing, and costly, mistakes.

Anybody who has ever worked with computers knows the old adage "garbage in, garbage out." Besides the most obvious interpretation, this phrase also expresses the truth that, in the end, it's the human element that determines the value of a computer's output. However, taking the human element out of your processes completely can also result in some very embarrassing, and costly, mistakes.Look at the way Viacom accidentally went after a parody of The Colbert Report that had been created and placed on YouTube by two activist organizations: Brave New Films and MoveOn. The video was, no doubt, flagged by the company's search algorithms as a violation of its copyright, and so Viacom immediately (and probably automatically) sent YouTube a takedown notice under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. YouTube, no doubt equally automatically, removed it from the site. The producers went to court.

In the end, Viacom apologized and, according to news reports, said that it plans to have real people review videos flagged for potential copyright violations. Passing by the obvious jokes about real people vs. fake people, you have to wonder how many other videos that are legal under fair use have been removed and not replaced because their owners don't have the time, money, or inclination to object.

Interestingly enough, nobody blames YouTube for being too quick on the trigger when it removed a video that was later found to be protected under the fair-use provisions of the copyright law. For one thing, the company doesn't have a whole lot of choice: Under the DMCA, the sooner sites respond to copyright complaints by removing the offending material, the less likely they are to be sued -- in fact, if they take too long to remove it, they lose any immunity that they had. As a result, it is logical that most sites will, when confronted with the possibility of a copyright suit, immediately remove the material without questioning the validity of the claim. It is then up to those who created the material to try to reverse that decision.

In other words, until this whole copyright mess is ironed out, the interpretation of who takes out YouTube's garbage -- and what constitutes garbage -- is left to the corporations and the courts. In the meantime, we may lose access to some very interesting, exciting, controversial -- and legal -- videos.

Addendum: According to a Viacom representative, the human element was indeed present in this case and, from the time of its first takedowns, a "real" person has reviewed every video the company has contested with YouTube and other video sites.

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