Why You Tube has music artists singing the blues
War has broken out between the video site and performers, writes Damian Corless
Back in the days before television was established, the all-round wiseguy Noel Coward observed that: "It's extraordinary how potent cheap music is." Founded only five years ago, the website YouTube has thrived on Coward's maxim. Music videos are the mainstay of the site which has become a phenomenon of the hi-tech age.
The brainchild of designer Chad Hurley and a brace of computer geeks Steve Chen and Jawed Karim, the business started up in an office above a Japanese restaurant in California in 2005. The first video shown featured Jawed Karim visiting San Diego Zoo.
Such humble beginnings were no indication of what lay straight ahead. Within months, 65,000 new videos were being uploaded onto the site each day and the site was receiving 100 million views on a daily basis. By the start of this year the total views had accumulated to six billion. It's been calculated that in 2007 YouTube alone ate up as much bandwidth as the entire internet did in 2000, making it the third most visited site on the globe after Google and Yahoo.
This thing is a monster.
Feargal Sharkey, former singer with Derry punk outfit The Undertones, believes that YouTube is a monster that must be stopped.
Thirty years on from celebrating teenage kicks, Sharkey is a fully integrated member of the music-biz establishment, rejoicing in the title of head of the industry body UK Music.
Representing Britain's Performing Rights Society (PRS) Sharkey has been playing hardball with YouTube, which was bought by Google in 2006 for $1.65bn.
The PRS has been demanding an increase in royalties. YouTube has replied with a flat "No". When the PRS pressed the issue, YouTube's response was to blank the videos of British acts.
Feargal Sharkey accused YouTube of employing a "blatant, cynical, manipulative" tactic to force British acts into accepting a royalty fee that's "significantly less than at present".
He claims that owners Google are "a large company thinking they're in a position to bully a little society that represents 60,000 songwriters". YouTube counter that the PRS is trying to extract "many, many times" the current rate.
YouTube's relationship with the laws of copyright have come in for criticism. Anyone uploading a video is given the following health warning: "Do not upload any TV shows, music videos, music concerts or commercials without permission unless they consist entirely of content you created yourself. The copyright tips page and the community guidelines can help you determine whether your video infringes someone else's copyright."
While this appears to cover the bases, the reality is that not everyone pays close attention and the site is infested with unauthorised clips from television shows, music videos and movies.
YouTube initially did not vet videos before they were posted online, leaving it to copyright holders to issue a retrospective takedown notice.
That policy changed after the media giant Viacom filed a $1bn lawsuit, charging that YouTube's content contained 150,000 unauthorised clips of its material. In the wake of the Viacom lawsuit YouTube introduced a policing system called Video ID to match uploaded videos against a database of copyrighted content.
The English Premier League is another body to file legal proceedings against YouTube for copyright infringement. The lawsuit, taken in New York in 2007, claimed that YouTube had "consciously encouraged people to view content on the site in order to raise its profile, violating the material's commercial value".
Two years on, there's still lots of Premiership action on the site.
The blocking of material on YouTube is a two-way street. The site has run into trouble around the globe for broadcasting content deemed inappropriate.
This month, the service was blanked in Bangladesh after army top brass took offence at footage of a fraught meeting with the country's prime minister.
In 2006, Iran blocked the site on the grounds that some of the content was immoral, while the following year it went off air in Pakistan on grounds of "blasphemy".
Other countries who've imposed bans include China, Tunisia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
Britain has now joined the league of blockers, with all music videos by British acts blanked. Patrick Walker, Director of Video Partnerships for YouTube in Europe, is adamant the corporation is not for moving.
He says: "Nobody wins when the music is blocked, but it's a necessary step because the amounts we are being asked to pay are many, many times higher than we've paid in the past."
His argument is that in the topsy-turvy world of new technology, pop acts cannot afford to lose exposure on YouTube.
"We're talking," says Walker. "Face-to-face meetings are planned and we do look positively towards some developments. It takes two to tango."