Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Intellectual property rights: what a tangled Web we’re weaving

The Web is heating up with news of another copyright battle, Viacom’s $1 billion lawsuit against YouTube.

I predict lawsuits will continue to increase in the next few years because technology available on the Web creates gray areas in copyright and other intellectual property rights issues.

I don’t think disputes will be limited to sites owned by media conglomerates, and I think a number of disputes will transcend intellectual property rights, moving into areas like libel and slander.

Traditional media is suffering transition pains right now because there’s so much free content available on the Web. Who watches TV anymore?
For instance users at YouTube upload whatever they want, and if they do infringe on a copyright, it’s up to the owner of the property to flag YouTube to remove the content.

That process sounds like a good plan until you consider the numbers. Last month, according to, Viacom spokesman Jeremy Zweig said Viacom demanded the removal of more than 100,000 “unauthorized clips” from YouTube. That request was followed by Viacom’s discovery of another 50,000 unauthorized clips.

I think this is just the tip of the iceberg. Right now there’s a move among print media as well as online media to take advantage of “citizen journalists”—partly because the content is free and partly because this approach involves the reader/guest in the publication’s development. Circulation declined for many traditional newspapers last year, and investors are running a little scared.

The approach sounds all well and fine until you consider the lack of standards. Who will make certain stories adhere to fact and not fiction? Who will make certain there’s no copyright infringement? Who will deal with libel threats that will surely ensue? And will quality suffer even more, considering the current quagmire engulfing the English language at the moment?

I interviewed best-selling author James Redfield (The Celestine Prophecy) for the St. John’s Sun not long ago, during his residency at Flagler College. He likened the Web to “Chicago in the ‘30s.”

We will certainly face interesting challenges as individuals with no professional background in media transform into content providers.

Here’s hoping the content they provide will be legal. But I wouldn’t always bet on it.

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