Dilbert, the DMCA and the Internet bubble video

The bottom line? Something's broken.

Radiohead recently rocked the music industry by making its latest album downloadable for free, or more accurately, for "whatever fans wanted to pay." The band was lauded for ushering in a new business model that disintermediated record companies and created a closer, more authentic bond between artists and fans.

Not so fast: Apparently, Radiohead has discontinued the downloads and is reverting to good old-fashioned CD sales. Why? That's for them to say, but as Dilbert's creator, Scott Adams, points out in his most recent book, "Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain," free downloading doesn't lead to a sustainable business model.

Adams had published a book for free online in the hopes that readers would purchase the sequel in hard copy. They didn't, because as Adams put it, "It turns out that people prefer 'free-and-instant' over 'overpriced-and-later'." That spelled the end of the "publishing for free" experiment, and Adams recently made the decision to cut back on his blogging for the same reason.

I've been thinking a lot about the phenomenon of free content lately, because one of the funniest videos on the Internet ever, "Here Comes Another Bubble," was recently taken down by YouTube after receiving a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) complaint.

The video -- produced by the San Francisco-based group The Richter Scales -- is based on the Billy Joel song, "We Didn't Start the Fire" and parodies the Web 2.0 hype, notably poking fun at Google and its founders in several places. (If you haven't seen it, if the copyright issues can be resolved it will likely reappear here).

Interestingly, neither Google (which owns YouTube), nor the party whose copyrights have been allegedly infringed is saying who actually filed the complaint. Apparently, under the DMCA, there's no requirement to do so.

Conspiracy theorists have suggested that Google is behind the takedown (the video may use copyrighted images to make fun of the company). That raises a really interesting issue: Under the DMCA, online service providers -- which include carriers and content providers, as well as libraries -- could use the DMCA as a blunt object to quell satire they disagree with.

I don't think Google's behind the move. More logical candidates are either Billy Joel or a local photographer, Lane Hartwell, who had complained of uncredited use of her work. The video's creators say the photo's covered under fair use provisions (the photo appears for less than a second, and the work is clearly a parody).

Both sides, in my view, have valid points. I loved the video and wish it could've stayed up, and have great respect for the creativity and integrity of its creators. That said, Hartwell provides a cogent defense of intellectual property.

The bottom line? Something's broken. We need a way to protect intellectual property, because as Hartwell, Adams and Radiohead all found out, the free kind doesn't pay the mortgage. But giving content providers with a club they can use to suppress content they disagree with goes way too far.

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Johna Till Johnson

Network World
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