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8/10/2007
12:36 PM
Cory Doctorow
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Why Is Hollywood Making A Sequel To The Napster Wars?

Shutting down Napster was a huge blunder for the record companies, leading to the collapse of the entire industry. Now, movies and TV studios are looking to repeat the failure by going after YouTube, says columnist Cory Doctorow.

YouTube '07 has another similarity to Napster '01: it is being sued by entertainment companies.

Only this time, it's not (just) the record industry. Broadcasters, movie studios, anyone who makes video or audio is getting in on the act. I recently met an NBC employee who told me that he thought that a severe, punishing legal judgment would send a message to the tech industry not to field this kind of service anymore.

Let's hope he's wrong. Google -- YouTube's owner -- is a grown-up company, unusual in a tech industry populated by corporate adolescents. Google has lots of money and a sober interest in keeping it. It wants to sit down with A/V rightsholders and do a deal. Six years after the Napster verdict, that kind of willingness is in short supply.

Most of the tech organizations with an interest in commercializing Internet audio and video have no interest in sitting down with the studios:

  • Some are nebulous open source projects like mythtv, a free hyper-TiVo that skips commercials, downloads and shares videos, and is wide open to anyone who wants to modify and improve it

  • Some are politically motivated anarchists like ThePirateBay, a Swedish BitTorrent tracker site that has mirrors in three countries with noninteroperable legal systems, where they respond to legal notices by writing sarcastic and profane letters and putting them online

  • Or out-and-out crooks like the bootleggers who use P2P to seed their DVD counterfeiting operations.

It's not just YouTube. TiVo, which pioneered the personal video recorder, is feeling the squeeze, being systematically locked out of the digital cable and satellite market. Their efforts to add a managed TiVoToGo service were attacked by the rightsholders who fought at the FCC to block them. Cable/satellite operators and the studios would much prefer the public to transition to "bundled" PVRs that come with your TV service.

These boxes are owned by the cable/satellite companies, who have absolute control over them. Time Warner has been known to remotely delete stored episodes of shows just before the DVD ships, and many operators have started using "flags" that tell recorders not to allow fast-forwarding, or to prevent recording altogether.

The reason that YouTube and TiVo are more popular than ThePirateBay and mythtv is that they're the easiest way for the public to get what it wants -- the video we want, the way we want it. We use these services because they're like the original Napster: easy, well-designed, functional.

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