Local Video Copyrights in the Age of Online Virality

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copyrightAs is always the case during major breaking news events, people flocked to digital and legacy media outlets for information during the tornado that killed 24 people in Moore, Oklahoma, last week. It was a chance for me to step back and watch from my place as an observer of life in today’s media world.

A local CBS News video clip of a woman named Barbara Garcia came into view via Twitter. I went to the YouTube link and watched. She had just come out of what was left of her house, but her little dog Bowser was missing. As she was being interviewed, the camera crew saw and heard Bowser under some rubble nearby. On camera, she was reunited, and the result was a very memorable and happy moment during the awful chaos of such a disaster. I watched as people spread the video via Twitter and Facebook during the next 24 hours. In network parlance, we call that “going viral.”

Barbara Garcia and BowserA day later, I was watching expanded coverage of the tornado aftermath on ABC Evening News, and they teased a report on people finding missing pets. Oh good, I thought, I’ll be able to find out what happened with the Garcia dog. Incredibly, the ABC piece didn’t contain even one frame from the viral story, and its absence was so glaringly obvious that I actually sat up and cussed at the TV set. I know why wasn’t it included. It was a CBS video, and ABC dares not run a CBS video. For one thing, it would be a violation of the CBS copyright, but more importantly, there’s pride at stake. The news managers at ABC believe they can do just fine on their own. Right.

When videos like this go viral, the rules of copyright have to bend their knee. They don’t “belong” to the originator anymore; they belong to everybody. And the more compelling the video, the more viral it will go. At the very least, in the world of real-time news, such videos belong to the story, and the law is simply going to have to be changed in order to fit the new reality. This has been evidenced many times over in the history of the Web, and I’ve often commented how TV stations have hurt their own best interests by trying to restrict the viral flow. Tell me, how does CBS lose, if this video — complete with its CBS logo — were to appear on ABC? Think carefully here, for you’re about to walk into a key difference between news-on-the-Web and news-on-TV.

The assumption of media has always been that my exclusive work is what differentiates me from others who do the same thing. In other words, if you want what I have, you have to “consume” it on my terms. This works beautifully in a universe of scarcity, for choices are limited, and consumers know what they are. For television, teases during prime-time programming expose such exclusive work to eyeballs that may not normally watch the later newscast on the station providing the tease. In this way, stations “recruit” new viewers, so the need to possess (or manufacture) that which is provocative can be critical to local business success.

When CNN came along, they wisely made deals with anybody and everybody in town for local video. This is why it’s possible to view the Barbara Garcia story on an ABC affiliate anywhere besides Oklahoma City, if they happen to also be a CNN affiliate (many are). Rules prohibit use in the market in which the video was shot or by any of the networks that are affiliated with CNN affiliates. Understand? It’s all designed to protect the copyright holder in a universe of scarcity. After all, the reasoning goes, if anybody really wants to watch the Barbara Garcia on TV, they should have to do it through KWTV-TV (News9), the CBS affiliate in Oklahoma City that shot the original video, or its designees. Why? Because KWTV deserves the right to profit from that video.

Fair enough.

Erin DeRuggiero
Erin DeRuggiero

A “GoFundMe” (think Kickstarter for charity) effort by social philathropist Erin DeRuggiero has raised $41,253 so far in hopes of helping Barbara Garcia and Bowser build a new home. Like many others, Garcia had no insurance, which makes it much more difficult for her to “start over.” DeRuggiero told me via email that she first learned of the story when one of her Facebook Friends posted a link to the CBS video. That act of pasting links anywhere is what generates virality, and it’s what leads to acts like that of Erin DeRuggiero. Real time news that is spread everywhere has unparalled possibilities for tomorrow, but not if old school copyright scenarios are practiced. The cultural possibilities of spreading knowledge and information in real time outweigh the profit motives of those who originated the virus. Compensation must come in a different way.

Moreover, for the sake of the journalism, key elements of major stories like this need the freedom to blossom everywhere. Barbara Garcia represented — in a remarkable way — the emotion of finding a companion in the wake of tragedy everywhere. Call me a nut, but her image should have been available to everyone, everywhere.

Of course, it gets sticky when the rules of profit-by-scarcity hit the rules of profit-by-abundance in the unbundled world of the Web. Strategy used in the scarcity world to “drive” viewers to a piece of video generally don’t work online. People need (yes, need) to watch what they want, when and where they want to watch it, and that includes Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and a host of other social media and aggregator sites.

We need to find a way to attach revenue-producing messages to videos, so that the Web can do its thing without hurting the incentive for local media companies to create such videos in the first place. And I’m not talking about attaching 30-second prerolls. Local advertisers really don’t care about out-of-town eyeballs, so whatever system is built needs to include only those sponsors who’d want a reach beyond the local market.

It can be done, and we need to talk about it. The Web is not TV.

Meanwhile, reach out if you can and help DeRuggiero exceed her goal.

TerryNaplesTerry Heaton is President of Reinvent21, a consulting company specializing in business reinvention for the 21st Century. He’s an internationally-recognized creative expert on all things web-related, especially as they relate to local media.