I wrote last summer about the JK Wedding Dance video, and how it ultimately proved to be a huge positive example of the Content ID system making a company some money. Without permission, the couple had used Chris Brown's song "Forever" as their dance music for the unique walk down the aisle.
The record label was alerted through YouTube's Content ID system that a song they held the copyright to was being used without permission. They could have simply had the video pulled—indeed, many large copyright holders choose to do this very thing.
Instead, they decided to let it ride. "Let's put some ads on that thing," some smart person at the label said. And so they did. (If a copyright holder is notified of a breach of their rights within a YouTube video, they can have the video removed, or place ads on it—even though they aren't the uploaders).
And according to Google, the label made a killing on iTunes selling that song through the ads they placed on the infringing video.
Now we have another example, one that's a bit bigger, I think. The San Francisco Chronicle has published an article today—and I feel pretty safe that this isn't another April Fools joke—about how Lionsgate Studios is allowing thousands of clips of their hit show "Mad Men" to play on YouTube rather than have them pulled. And they're putting ads on these videos, driving traffic to a variety of places. It's a clever bit of what I've just now decide to call "tolerated piracy.”
When Content ID first launched, it mostly got publicity as a tool that helps copyright holders find out when their stuff is being stolen. And let's be honest, it hardly got any publicity in the mainstream media. But it's quickly becoming clear that Content ID is something much more. It's a network. It's a channel. It's a distribution platform like DVD or On Demand.
Here's David King, the Content ID Product Manager, as quoted in the Chronicle article:
"If you're the History Channel, you can't just be on Comcast, you've got to be on Dish. If you cut off distribution channels, you should expect less traffic."
And a bit further down the article he says:
"By giving people choices about how they want their content to appear on the site, it's changed the conversation. I think what media companies are starting to understand is, don't kill the golden goose."
If YouTube can keep their advertising system in a state where it actually pays off for content creators… then there's almost no reason for companies to have their videos pulled anymore. Typically you would have a copyrighted video pulled because it's being used without permission and you're not being paid. But if Content ID will allow you a way to be paid for those views… then the only reason to impose copyright law and have the video pulled would be permission-based.
Now, let's say you make a popular TV show. There may be plenty of good reasons why you would still have copyright-infringing videos of that show pulled from YouTube outside of lost revenue. Perhaps you want to drive viewers to your own website instead of YouTube, where you can have more control over the page design and call to action… or even the ads. That's totally valid.
But you can't deny that Content ID is slowly breaking down some of the long-held reasons why companies might cry about copyright infringement. A show like Mad Men could use the extra publicity that comes from exposure on YouTube. It's on AMC, for starters. And while the ratings it pulls for AMC are fantastic, on any of the major four networks the show would be considered to be struggling. Sure, it wins a lot of awards and gets Emmys, but all shows eventually need viewers because all shows eventually need advertisers.
Allowing the clips to remain on YouTube and adding some advertisements to them gives Man Men just one more venue in which to find an audience—a pretty darn huge venue. And YouTube gives them features they might not have had on their own, such as sharing and embedding.
And they get all this for zero cost. This is free profit for them. Whatever they make is icing on the cake, and they don't even have to worry about any distribution headaches or costs—the "people" are the distributors, uploading the videos, watching them, and then sharing them with friends. Lionsgate needs only to sit back and watch their fan base grow while they make a bit of extra ad revenue on the side.
We're a long way from Content ID becoming a full-fledged distribution platform that is embraced by all. The advertising system on YouTube is still too young to know if it's going to be profitable for companies in the long term. And consumers are spread out over a ton of different distribution networks and technologies. But it's pretty darn clear to me that Content ID was never just a copyrighted-content finder in YouTube's eyes. As is almost always the case with Google or YouTube, there was a deeper motive… a plan larger in scope that was related to advertising. I look forward to seeing where the system is in another 6 months, and if it's adopted and embraced by more rights holders.