Premier League vs YouTube – a misguided attack on the wrong target

As we all know by now, the English Premier League is to sue Youtube for what it calls copyright infringement on its content. The EPL has accused Youtube of “knowingly misappropriating” its intellectual property by “encouraging” people to post goal videos and highlights of Premiership games [source].

It doesn’t end there. The League authorities have filed a ‘class action suit’ asking anyone and everyone whose copyright has been infringed upon, the success of which would mean the shutting down of Youtube (They have also set up a web site for this).

It is understood that the EPL is well within its rights to protect its copyrights and challenge Youtube (which ironically is one of the best promotional vehicles of the EPL), but what the League authorities would do well here is to pause for a while and rethink their strategy.

For all the furore surrounding the startup, bought recently by Google for around $1.6 billion, it has grown as one of the largest repository of digital video content in the world. A digital library aficionado’s dream, but also a dream of the common football fan.

Now you and I have the chance to see rare clips of footballing greats that would have been impossible even with modern digital cable television. It is the medium, where people also get the chance to debate and comment on clips of players, not unlike blogs. But if all this is illegal in the eyes of their respective copyright owners, then what of it?

For that one needs an understanding of the new economy, increasingly driven by the internet. Traditional forms of media like the television networks played by rules which worked fine as long as they were in the playground that was the ‘offline’ world. But the online arena demands different rules, rules that might grey the divide between legal and illegal, right and wrong.

In the current scenario, as more people spend longer time sitting in front of a computer rather than the traditional idiot box, more people prefer watching shows online (good internet speeds permitting). The proliferation of sites like Youtube has fuelled just that. It has manufactured the need to watch media content online.

Television networks in the US have recently faced similar problems not very different from that faced by The League. Plenty of sites have sprung up that link to TV shows hosted on websites like Youtube and Dailymotion, hence infuriating network executives. (In fact recently, Forbes published an article with a list of sites saying how difficult it really is to stop online pirates.) However, their response is fairly interesting and the Premier League could take a cue from them.

True. Viacom, the company behind Comedy Central hits like Colbert Report and Daily Show have sued Youtube. But the response from their side has to be lauded. They feature the shows on their site, albeit select 10-15 minute clips from their shows. (which, trust me, is a big chunk of screen time for a cable network) Channels like NBC and Fox go one better, featuring entire episodes of hits like 24, Prison Break and Heroes. Of course, they are only for viewers in the US.

It would be great if the League take up measures of this kind, showing clips from weekly games on their site for free (powered by advertising). After all, we all know the results of the game, and nothing else is going to thrill as much as watching a live game. So really, there is no value addition if the EPL is going to feature clips from their games. When there is no value addition, then in simple commonsense terms, there can be no charging the viewers.

But well, our rant does not end here, does it? It has to go a step further, back to the root of the issue. The Premier League accuses Youtube of knowingly encouraging people to upload videos of football games. Therein lies a major flaw in judgment. A behemoth like Google would care far too much about its image to encourage people to upload copyright material.

The league’s accusation makes it shocking, how little they seem to know about the way these sites work. And it’s not as if the guys at Google aren’t listening. Youtube has been proactive in weeding out copyright material. I know for one, when I emailed the Messi wonder goal to my friend only for him to realize it was taken off the other day.

Unfortunately, the problem with Youtube is that it is the victim of its own size. They pull one video down, and ten others spring up in its place. So the root of the problem is not Youtube, but a far more difficult opponent – Peer to Peer streaming softwares.

For the uninitiated, these softwares (reportedly developed in China) allow people to stream football games live from their PC. Each PC behaves like a server and streams content to other PCs which does likewise to some more PCs, forming a decentralized network of PCs that manage to broadcast football games.

From these, it becomes very easy to rip off clips of games and upload them to Youtube and plenty other sites. (oh yeah, Youtube is NOT THE ONLY site that hosts clips, and banning Youtube is clearly not the solution.) These softwares however, being totally decentralized and not hosted on one particular server or in one particular country, make the legal issues far more complicated, and it is surprising that they have mostly remained under the radar while big video hosting sites take the beating.

The point is, it is quite shocking, with all the legal advisers at the disposal of the League, they fail to weed out the root of the problem and go for short term quick fixes like Youtube, which will never really fix the problem in a world increasingly governed by the free flow of information that is far more people-driven than the old economy can envisage.

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