Watch those viral videos disappear: Some thoughts on copyright paranoia

Copyright symbol
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If there is any right more misunderstood and more abused than the right to free speech, I believe it is copyright. It doesn’t help that copyright law is insanely complicated and has become conflated over time into a grotesque overprotection for big corporations’ stranglehold on intellectual property, rather than what Thomas Jefferson originally intended it to be: “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” What Jefferson actually intended was to provide an incentive to creative persons to make their work public by enabling them to earn something from their work for a time, after which it time it would enter the public domain and thus enrich all of human knowledge. I know, crazy, right? This is America and there’s money to be made, so screw human knowledge.

Of course the corporate world quakes in their underpants at all of the flagrant copyright violating occurring in the Wild West that is the Interwebs. I mean, people are posting videos of their toddlers dancing to Prince songs. However will Prince earn a decent living with that going on? In many cases, it seems that these exuberant pursuits of copyright violating are way too exuberant. Take, for example, my current favorite Keyboard Cat video, which has had the soundtrack removed due to copyright violation. Leaving alone the notion that the sound violates copyright while the accompanying video is perfectly okay (scratching head at the logic behind that one), Keyboard Cat is clearly parody, which falls under fair use. And I’m not just saying that. There is such a thing as fair use — you can look it up.

Besides, videos like this one could actually help some flagging careers. (When was the last time you even heard of Hall & Oates?) Take that wedding dance video that has recently gone viral. Chris Brown was struggling with some minor publicity troubles, but now all is forgiven and his song is getting record downloads because of some cutesy home video that got posted on YouTube. Copyright, shmopyright — he’s raking in some dollars now.

Even when there are legitimate copyright violations, such as when the clip of the brilliant William Shatner reading Sarah Palin’s resignation speech on Conan O’Brien was reposted everywhere, it doesn’t make much sense to have it taken down (which NBC very quickly did). It’s a 6-minute clip from a television show — it’s not going to keep anyone from watching Conan or his advertisers. In fact, it may just help get viewers for the show. Publicity agencies bend over backwards to come up with dumb tricks that they hope will result in a viral video that will promote their movie or TV show, and often it lamely backfires. When you’ve got a genuine viral phenomenon on your hands, don’t look it in the mouth, is my advice.

The Interwebs is officially out of your control, corporate America. You can’t stop all those crazed fans from loving on your content and wanting to share it with their mailmen and former kindergarten teachers on Facebook. So why fight it? Surely you can figure out a way to make money off of it instead. Isn’t that what you do best?