By Guest Blogger: David Komuves
Recent efforts by the video-sharing website YouTube – such as the introduction of original channels and paid subscriptions – show that it is increasingly becoming a distribution network for professional content. Ever since its purchase by Google in 2006 YouTube has been on the path of commercialisation and its place in the online economy has been defined by tensions between copyright, content and revenues. Whilst YouTube still has the potential to be a platform for amateurs and independent artists the growing dominance of commercial content risks marginalising their creations.
YouTube was officially launched in December 2005 and although it was not the first video-sharing website it has quickly become the most popular. As of the time of writing it attracts more than 1 billion unique visitors per month making it the third most visited website on the Internet. It has often been viewed as a democratising platform that has fundamentally altered how people engage with media, with the potential to reshape the whole media landscape. However since its purchase by Google in November 2006 YouTube has been on the path of commercialisation, transitioning from a medium characterised by user generated content to a broadcasting channel dominated by professionally generated videos. Despite Google emphasising that ‘[t]he community will remain the most important part of YouTube’ forces of both legal and economic nature have forced it off this course.
Copyright infringement has always been a major topic for YouTube. These issues have however been framed differently following Google’s purchase of the service. Whereas before the conflict was seen as existing between the media conglomerates and the ‘freedom fighter’ of YouTube, afterwards it became a conflict between big corporations and a target that could afford to pay. In the wake of Viacom’s lawsuit – launched in March 2007 for more than $1 billion in damages – several class actions were filed in the U.S. on behalf of parties such as sports leagues, broadcasters, music publishers and other copyright owners all of whom claimed that YouTube should be liable for any copyright infringements committed by its users. While the Premier League and others have recently decided to drop their case Viacom v. YouTube is still on-going after 6 and a half years, concerning a version of the site that has not existed since the October 2007 date when YouTube first introduced video identification tools.
These video identification tools, known as Content ID can automatically identify matches between files submitted by content owners and those videos uploaded to the site. Content owners are then given the option of deciding between leaving the video unaffected, blocking it, or claiming the right to run advertising with it in a revenue splitting agreement with YouTube.
This still means that in situations where someone else owns the copyright to content in a video (such as to a song), and asks YouTube to take it down, the video will be removed. However if the copyright holder decides instead to ‘monetise’ the video, it will instead remain available and generate income from advertising. This happened for example with the song ‘Harlem Shake’ when it went viral this February, spawning thousands of cover versions uploaded daily to YouTube. These videos hit a total of 1 billion views just 40 days after the first upload generating revenue for both the record label Mad Decent and YouTube.
Indeed popular videos are the lifeblood of the site. YouTube mainly relies on advertising to generate revenues and Google is trying everything it can to get a return on its investment. The site needs content that is popular in order to persuade advertisers to spend their money advertising through the YouTube platform. While amateur videos form the majority of content they are barely watched in contrast to the videos of major media companies: as of today all but one of the 20 most viewed videos of all time are professional music videos. Furthermore, it may very well be the case that user-generated content is not necessarily the kind of content advertisers want to be associated with: it might contain a controversial message; be low quality; or possibly infringe upon copyright.
Even before the Google buyout YouTube had attempted to partner with major media companies to provide content for the website. Warner Music Group agreed back in October 2006 to provide its library of music videos and to allow YouTube users to incorporate its music and video footage into their own videos. Their main condition was that Warner and YouTube split the income drawn from advertising that accompanied these user-generated videos. However in December 2008 Warner rescinded the agreement due to its dissatisfaction with the revenues generated.
When YouTube was forced to turn instead to smaller partners such as the NBA or Ford the decision was taken to start building its current business model: providing branded channels featuring a specific partner’s content. YouTube formed partnerships with hundreds of companies who contributed their material to the site whilst around the same time inviting those of its users with the most-viewed videos to join its revenue-sharing deals. The business model of YouTube began to shift towards becoming a distribution network for commercially produced professional content: the kind of content that will make the site profitable.
Recently YouTube continued to move further in this direction by enabling any video creator who has 10,000 subscribers to set up paid channels and charge a fee for access to their content. This follows in the trend of previous experiments by the service, including their 2011 launch of a paid video-on-demand service and their investment of over $300 million in upwards of one hundred ‘original channels’. Most of this funding went to well-known personalities (such as Madonna and Shaquille O’Neal) and content producers from the TV, film, music, news, and sports industries along with so-called multi-channel networks. With these moves Google hoped to extend its audience, attract more advertisers, and eliminate the need to negotiate with big studios for premium content.
Additionally the website layout has been changed several times to more prominently feature professionally generated and promoted videos over those of ordinary users. It can be argued that these changes do not go along with the YouTube slogan of ‘Broadcast Yourself’ as the emphasis has become more and more on distribution and consumption rather than creation. The message being portrayed is that user-generated content is not as desirable as professional content because of its inability to attract sufficient advertising to make a profit.
What does this all mean for individual creators? Although the increasing number of professional videos does not automatically wipe out user-generated content, and YouTube still has the potential to be a platform for amateurs and independent artists, the growing dominance of commercial content might very well overshadow and marginalise their creations. Additionally the current payment mechanisms structured around professional level content may benefit Google and its corporate partners but not generate enough revenue to support independent creators. Although the revenue sharing program was expanded last April – allowing anyone who meets certain criteria to become a ‘YouTube partner’ and monetise their videos – many contributors have remained disappointed by their earnings.
This raised a key question: Will YouTube continue to be a home for individuals to share their content, or will it increasingly become dominated by major corporations? We might find out soon…