As YouTube cleanses itself of unofficial Oscars footage, tennis fans report that home edited videos of match highlights are also being removed from the site. These homemade highlights, often the only way fans can see video from distant, smaller tournaments, are being taken down at the request of organisations such as Tennis Australia and the United States Tennis Association, which run two of the sport's four biggest annual events.
When Google acquired YouTube, there were widespread predictions that the service's new deep-pockets owner would be sued into the ground by a ravening pack of behemoth copyright holders intent on punishing the evil pirates who host ten-minute clips of their material. This was never likely; Google is big enough to strike licencing deals with Big Media.
Any suits that happen are more likely to come from smaller rightsholders whose unauthorisedly YouTubed video is their only asset. Google's acquisition was accompanied by licensing agreements with Sony BMG and Warner Music Group. More recently, though, Viacom demanded the removal of all violations of its copyrighted material, an estimated 100,000 clips that included MTV music videos and the crowning of Miss America 2007 when licensing talks fell through.
Copyright violations have, of course, always been an issue on YouTube, even though the system has built-in limitations that make it suboptimal for the archivist seeking a cheap source of free footage. The small screen size and relatively low resolution are the most obvious two, but in addition the service is designed only to play video live. To download anything you must find yourself a third-party hack.
About a year ago, when copyright complaints got loud enough, the service implemented a 10-minute limit on video clips posted from ordinary accounts and instituted a "Director's account" for verified professionals posting their own material and willing to indemnify the company. YouTube of course takes down copyrighted material in response to rightsholder complaints and suspends the accounts of repeat offenders.
All these prophylactic measures have served, so far, to cover the company's ass. But there is no mechanism for users to protest against unreasonable rightsholders' restrictions. The recent removals of tennis-related clips are a good illustration.
Erich (who prefers to withhold his surname) tells the story this way. Sometime last year he began compiling short video highlights from tennis matches, both from smaller tournaments and from large events such as the US Open or last month's Australian Open.
Most of his clips, he says, even from smaller tournaments, would make it into the day's top 20 most-viewed sports list. High-profile matches, such as those from the major events or those contested by star players such as Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, or Rafael Nadal would often reach the top ten and remain there for a week. His highlights of the retirement at last year's US Open of American great Andre Agassi not only reached number one in sports but the top ten most viewed videos across every category on YouTube. In addition, people who liked the videos posted links to his clips in forums on official player Web sites and elsewhere.
"It was," he admits, "probably unlikely that I was going to be able to sneak under their radar." Once one infringing clip is found, clicking on the user's name lists all the videos that user has ever posted.
He got his first complaint from YouTube last September, during the US Open, when the US Open's organisers, the United States Tennis Association, demanded the removal of his video clips. YouTube cited the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and issued a warning.
"I also heard from other posters who had clips removed," he says, "even just short five-second clips of a player hitting a forehand or backhand in practice." (It's worth noting that the US Open, like some other US sporting events, bans spectators from bringing in commercial video cameras and other recording devices. Some US events even ban still cameras that have interchangeable lenses.)
"Clearly," says Erich, "they were determined to wipe out any information or material that could prove tennis still exists as a sport or, God forbid, could bring in new fans."