Go to the video-sharing site YouTube, type in a search for “I’m Too Sexy,” and after a little digging you’ll find a grainy copy of Right Said Fred’s original 1991 music video, taped by somebody off MTV2. You’ll also find dozens of homemade videos for the song, variously assembled by fans from footage of Mortal Kombat, the Beatles, The Dark Crystal, My Little Pony, and especially themselves: a shirtless guy wearing a mask and jumping around his bedroom, a young woman wearing an eye patch whose dance partner rocks sunglasses and a sombrero, two teenage girls pretending a blanket on the floor of their parents’ kitchen is a catwalk, and many more.
Unsurprisingly, music videos of one kind or another are among the most popular features on both YouTube and its chief competitor, Google Video: nobody wants to watch a tiny low-res movie for 30 or 90 minutes, but 4 minutes is just about right if it’s amusing enough. What’s a little more surprising is that there are so many fans’ own videos for popular or not-so-popular recordings. The upload-your-own-video sites–and MySpace, which is getting its own video service off the ground–have figured out that a lot of people don’t just want to listen and watch: they want to be a part of the music they love. And letting them be involved sometimes means looking the other way about a little bit of copyright infringement–which both the sites and organizations like the RIAA seem to be doing in many cases, for a change.
One of the niftier features of MySpace is that artists can automatically stream their music on their pages, and regular users can add a song by one of those artists to their own pages. In practice, that means that MySpace’s users can become active advocates for their favorite bands: when your friends look at your page, they hear a song that you’ve endorsed. Bands love that. Acts as big as the All-American Rejects (who have nearly 300,000 MySpace friends) put exclusive tracks on their MySpace pages; the Yeah Yeah Yeahs premiered their new album as a MySpace stream; any user with more than a few bands listed as friends will be peppered with messages from unknown artists, along the lines of “you like Coldplay and Fall Out Boy, so we think you might like us!”
MySpace’s definition of “bands,” though, is pretty loose: enterprising fans have also set up pages for famous (and not-too-famous) artists who don’t have them already, complete with streaming recordings. The Hank Williams who’s got about 5,500 friends, “Honky Tonk Blues” playing on his page, and a link to Quizilla’s “Which Fucked-Up Genius Composer Are You?” quiz in his profile probably doesn’t have the support of the Williams estate.
Likewise, besides fan-made material, YouTube (and to a lesser extent Google Video) hosts scores of bootleg live videos, promotional clips, and archived TV appearances–as well as actual music videos–by artists who probably aren’t paying attention. (If you want to watch, say, the English folk-rock band Fotheringay playing Bob Dylan’s “Too Much of Nothing” on a German TV show in 1970, you’re in luck.) Few copyright holders seem to be complaining loudly so far in cases like these, and according to Motion Picture Association of America spokesperson Kori Bernards, the major video sites have been “good corporate citizens so far, and have complied with our company’s requests to take down certain materials. . . . As long as they continue to abide by the law, we don’t have a problem with them.”
Given the past actions of the RIAA and MPAA, it’s hard not to imagine a little nightstick brandishing in that talk of good law-abiding citizenship. But the suggestion that it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission is a major improvement on the file-sharing panic of the last few years. About five million people watched “Lazy Sunday” on YouTube after it first aired on Saturday Night Live; in February, NBC asked YouTube to remove it (and other NBC content), which it did. But a few dozen parodies, lip syncs, restagings, and rip-offs of the sketch made by fans are still there. Do these derivative works infringe the copyright on “Lazy Sunday”? Technically, some of them probably do–an aggressive copyright laywer might argue that using the entire song, in any form, goes well beyond fair use. Does anyone want to be the jerk in this scenario? Maybe not. The RIAA and MPAA have had a hard enough time convincingly casting themselves as the persecuted victims of peer-to-peer file sharing; it’d be that much harder to seriously suggest they’re being hurt, rather than helped, by the dissemination of fan-made derivative works that aren’t even commercially available.
Still, the way culture works now is that the technology comes first, and then cease-and-desist orders shape it. The question that will determine whether the RIAA and MPAA eventually release the hounds or let video-upload culture develop in peace is whether there’s money to be made from the sites’ audiences. (Which are sizable: YouTube got slightly more than 9 million unique visits in February, and Google Video around 6.2 million, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.) YouTube partnered with MTV2 earlier this month to broadcast some of its content and plans to feature ads later this year. In early January Google Video started selling $1.99 music videos, but many of them can be found for free elsewhere with a few keystrokes’ worth of effort; Google’s store may be less a serious moneymaking venture than an attempt to see whether people are really willing to pay two bucks to watch the Strokes’ “Juicebox,” or to grab a piece of the market before iTunes’ video store takes over. (At a meeting with analysts in early March, Google executives suggested that their goals for Google Video aren’t particularly concrete yet.) If selling videos turns out to be lucrative enough, record labels may be less likely to let uploaders give them away for free–and fan videos could be caught in the crackdown.
But people use music and music videos in significantly different ways. People like to multitask: they like to listen to music while they’re on the move, and to watch videos while they’re sitting and browsing. But they’re more likely to want to watch a short video stream once or twice and then pass it along to a friend instead of keeping it around for repeated viewing. (YouTube, ingeniously, includes cut-and-pasteable code beneath every video on its site to allow people to embed that video into their own Web pages; Google Video and others are now emulating it.) And a lot of the music videos that are the most fun in cruddy, squashed digital form are the cheap homemade ones, like Gary Brolsma’s infamous “Numa Numa” dance to O-Zone’s “Dragostea Din Tei” or Jonathan Coulton’s song “Flickr,” inspired by images he found on the photo-sharing site. Millions of people may watch them, but it’s hard to imagine anyone paying for them–which means that, for the first time, it’s possible for a video to be both popular and totally uncommercial.