by Andrew Beutmueller
Last week in the US, hordes of angry libertarian geeks stormed the self-proclaimed “social content” website Digg.com. The virtual mêlée was sparked when Digg removed several postings of the code used to crack High Definition DVD content.
Outraged by what they regard as “censorship” more than a million registered users deluged the site with messages assailing Digg CEO Jay Adelson’s ethics and reposting the removed code – time after time after time.
Digg users got around the “censorship” in several ways that included surreptitious links to YouTube videos of the code, songs featuring phonetically recited code lyrics, and, in one extreme example, a user tattooed all 32 characters of the code string on the back of his neck and posted a photograph of it.
However, a few hours later, Digg reversed its position and refused to remove any more postings containing the code as it became abundantly evident that the Digg community was passionate about the issue and was working to circumvent any and all efforts to keep details of the code off the site.
Digg Founder Kevin Rose explained the change of heart in a blog message to users. He wrote, “You’ve made it clear, you’d rather see Digg go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company. We hear you, and effective immediately we won’t delete stories or comments containing the code…If we lose, then what the hell, at least we died trying.”
He could well be right. Hollywood studio legal departments are as alert and sensitive as Digg.com users to questions of copyright infringement. Just last month, Viacom Inc. announced a massive lawsuit against YouTube and Google charging intentional copyright violations to the tune of more than US$1 billion in damages, as well as an injunction prohibiting Google and YouTube from further copyright infringement. The suit alleges that almost 160,000 unauthorised clips of Viacom’s programming have been available on YouTube and that these clips had been viewed more than 1.5 billion times.
As the studios see it, Digg.com and YouTube and other similar sites are neither libertarian philanthropists nor First Amendment martyrs, but are profit-driven enterprises just like them, so why should they enjoy free content and immunity to copyrights?
“YouTube is a significant, for-profit organisation that has built a lucrative business out of exploiting the devotion of fans to others’ creative works in order to enrich itself and its corporate parent Google,” said a source at Viacom. “Their business model, which is based on building traffic and selling advertising off of unlicensed content, is clearly illegal and is in obvious conflict with copyright laws.”
In fact, according to Viacom, YouTube’s strategy has been to avoid taking proactive steps to curtail the infringement on its site, thus generating significant traffic and revenues for itself while shifting the entire burden of monitoring YouTube onto the its “victims”.
In the main, those discussing the incident at the onHollywood digital media conference last week tended to regard the Digg controversy as fairly insignificant.
“In essence the Web 2.0 social content model turned on itself and exercised the right to free speech by shutting down the organ of their own expression – it was a revolt over free DVDs,” said one technology executive at the onHollywood conference, on condition of anonymity.