Viacom's battle is with the Web

Nora the Piano Playing Cat may yet wind up teaching a valuable lesson to all latter-day content providers. The fearless feline's amateur video clip has been viewed more than 1 million times on popular Web site YouTube, far more than most news or entertainment clips from "mainstream" television shows.

So just what does entertainment giant Viacom (which owns Paramount Pictures, MTV, the Comedy Channel and a host of Web sites, television shows, wireless applications and broadband channels) really hope to accomplish by suing YouTube's new owner Google for $1 billion‾

Ostensibly, this legal Battle of the Giants centers on Hollywood's favorite obsession: copyright infringement. This is a battle the Hollywood elite has waged for decades. (Back in the 1980s, the music industry singled out Asian markets like Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore as centers of nefarious bootleg cassette tapes). Now the battle has moved to the Web and mobile phones, where Viacom executives say their video content is being "misappropriated" without permission by YouTube (and presumably, on the sites of smaller, much poorer competitors who have sprung up around the world.)

Viacom used crawler software to scour the YouTube site for months (at an estimated cost of tens of thousands of dollars per month, according to the Los Angeles Times) to analyze the YouTube content and separate what was authorized and what was not.

Not surprisingly, Viacom executives have adopted a sanctimonious tone in this battle. Their argument is that they are standing tall for copyright protection. But the real issues, as they usually are in such jousts, are money and control. Viacom wants to decide what gets posted on YouTube and wants owner Google to pay Viacom for that content.

(Viacom recently struck a deal with Joost, a new YouTube clone site developed by Skype's two founders, using just such an arrangement.)

What's really interesting here is that Hollywood's moguls apparently haven't figured out the real meaning of sites like YouTube. The most popular video content has become humorous, often silly, amateur programming, not the slick stuff produced by TV and movie studios. The most watched clip on YouTube, viewed 44.2 million times, shows an amateur interpreting "The Evolution of Dance." Another clip of an amateur lip-synching  the Pokemon theme scored 21.1 million hits. Now this isn't exactly my idea of riveting entertainment, but it's sure resonating somewhere around the world. (In comparison, an excerpt from popular US weekly comedy show Saturday Night Live gained about 18 million viewers on You Tube.)

During one week in March, a Spanish-language clip of a Bugatti luxury auto parked in front of the Ritz Hotel in Madrid beat anything Hollywood produced.

It gets worse: One of the most popular videos for mobile devices is a prototype for a spinning toilet paper folder and dispenser; it's been watched 866,000 times.

Now I'm not audacious enough to tell Hollywood how to run its business, but when your shows are losing out to toilet-paper dispensers and amateur lip-synchers, your main problem isn't protecting the copyrights to your content. It's getting people to watch the content - on mobile devices, television sets, the Web, walls, billboards or anyplace else the legions may gather.

Instead of suing Google, Viacom executives should be standing on street corners all over the world shoving their content in people's faces. No doubt, Google and Viacom will eventually settle their legal differences, but what's thoroughly  unsettling is how the Web is recasting the notion of popular entertainment.

(Al Senia is based in Los Angeles and editor of America'sNetwork.com.)

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