YouTube vs. The RIAA

This is another in a series of posts highlighting trends which threaten our rights to participate in our culture.

According to a report published in the Boston Phoenix this week, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) may soon take aim at the amateur lip syncing and Karaoke videos which circulate on YouTube. Spokespeople from the RIAA, which has never been slow to assert the broadest possible claims on intellectual property, have so far not confirmed the claims that they will be using their power to force YouTube to take down such videos.

Participatory Culture’s Most Powerful Distribution System

YouTube represents perhaps the most powerful distribution channel so far for amateur media content. More than 6 million visitors watch a total of 40 million clips per day and upload another 50,000 more, according to the Phoenix. Some of that traffic is no doubt generated by content grabbed from commercial media — including a fair number of commercials which are virally circulated, music videos and segments from late night comedy shows, strange clips from reality television, and the like. But a good deal of the content is user generated and this content is generating wide interest.

Many people will have seen the footage of the guy who went a little extreme with his Christmas tree lights last year or, in regards to this current issue, some of the videos of pasty-faced and overweight people singing off key versions of their favorite pop songs — often with demonstrably limited comprehension of the lyrics. Many of us had argued that earlier file-sharing services such as Napster provided an infrastructure for garage bands and the like to get their music into broader circulation but there, the illegal content swamped the legal and made it hard to support this case. With YouTube, there is no question that some of the most interesting content comes from grassroots creators. Via YouTube, what were once home movies are finding a public — some coming to appreciate real creativity, some there to gawk.

Mixed Signals from Media Industries

The various media industries are struggling to figure out how to manage this service, which clearly yields them benefits in terms of increased audience awareness and interest in their content. The early circulation of a particular Saturday Night Live sketch (“Lazy Sunday”) has helped to put YouTube on the map and has helped to increase ratings for the series. There was something funny on Saturday Night Live — who knew? Many of us saw Stephen Colbert’s appearance at the Washington Press Club dinner via YouTube. I suspect it was the only C-Span content a lot of young people had watched in a long time. In both cases, the rights holders — NBC and C-Span respectively — had the content removed.

More recently, a friend sent me to the site to see previews for some of the forthcoming Fall television series but by the time I got there, in some cases, the networks had them yanked. It’s hard to imagine anything more bone-headed than to shut down grassroots efforts to sell your own products — whatever else you think about the intellectual property issues in circulating actual program segments.

A few companies — most notably the MTV Networks (full disclosure — a sponsor of C3) — have taken a more enlightened policy towards YouTube — no doubt because a sizable chunk of young males spend more time these days surfing the web than zapping across cable. Taking advantage of YouTube as a source of viral marketing means letting go some of the control that the networks believe they have over what happens to their content: for some of the broadcasters, this loss of control has been hard to accept (and is complicated in the case of cable networks by expectations of their affiliates that they will be the exclusive source for program content).

We’re Singing Their Songs!

Now, the RIAA, the most hated name in the entertainment industry, may be entering this picture and if history is any indication, they are likely to play rough. But they need to pull back and think more carefully about whether this kind of scorched earth policy is really the best approach to the challenges they are confronting.

After all, if their performing artists can’t compete with some of the off-key, language-impaired performances in these videos, then nothing else they do is going to get any of us to buy their records anyway. It seems far more likely that these videos will drive us towards the professional performances, reminding us of songs we may have otherwise forgotten.

The RIAA is acting on the assumption that these amateur performances may be depreciating the value of their intellectual property. But these fans appreciate the original music in a double sense — first, they want to show the world how much they like it and second, they increase the potential value of the music by heightening public awareness. Their emotional investments in the songs yield potential dividends for the rights holders. Media industries usually benefit when their content becomes a living part of our culture — if nothing else, it extends the shelf life.

But then, technically, we are supposed to pay the record industry money every time we sing Happy Birthday to someone so it is no surprise that they take a dim view on amateurs playing rough with their precious lyrics or mouthing off to their songs.

As journalism professor John Battelle posts in his blog about this issue, “Good f’ing lord, RIAA. Wake up. This is how we use music in the real world. Get over yourselves.”

Amen, Brother Battelle, Amen.

Thanks to Margaret Weigel for alerting me about this issue.


  1. i seriously doubt the RIAA is that stupid. when i first saw this rumor i was sure this is a joke, an attempt to make them look even worst than they are currently viewed by online users.

    i still doubt this news item. however, if it is true it may be good. taking extreme position such as this dilutes their overall argument.

  2. Randy Picker says:

    If you are interested in a legal perspective on this, I have a post on our faculty blog:

  3. Sorry to nitpick my first time here, but unless you meant something else entirely (like loose lips sinking ships or something) I’m fairly sure the phrase you want is spelled “lip-synching.”

  4. “i seriously doubt the RIAA is that stupid.”

    What could possibly lead you to that conclusion? The RIAA is fighting a rear-guard action against, not the future, but the present. They’ve been suing grandmothers who didn’t illegally download MP3s, for downloading MP3s. They are pretty dumb, right about now. Battelle is totally on point, but the crux of the issue is that the RIAA can’t wake up. Record companies are run by rich old guys who’ve gotten rich doing things this way (i.e., brutally) – they’re not going to change the way they work, because they don’t understand the way the world works now. They don’t even understand how their own industry works.

    So, a few things might happen.

    1) behavior of the recording industry will only change once a generational transition has occurred (i.e., current crop of executives replaced with those that are currently coming of age in the business and understand the value of making parts of their product freely availalbe)

    2) someone in the biz actually does wake up (not likely by my numbers, but possible), changes practices and in short order there’s a stampede to change practices across the biz. First part not likely, but, if it happens, second part likely.

    3) we get better laws. This is very unlikely, as the RIAA and MPAA have a pretty hefty chunk of both parties bought, on this issue, but stranger things have happened.

    But really, in the meantime, we’re all just going to go about our business, and these guys are gonna have to figure out how to adapt. Suing grandmas doesn’t seem like a good strategy.