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Facing the ethical minefield of You Tube

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We’re sorting through the electronic newswire detritus around here, trying to figure out if YouTube, the international “user-provided” video website, is an absolute stroke of genius and a sterling example of the new media age to come, or if it is an agent of copyright infringement that threatens to subvert the creative process and those who rely on it to make their living. This as the company is on the cusp of going international, programming channels in nine countries based on its US business model.

We know for sure it is a brilliant piece of software and an amazing story of American ingenuity. It began with three guys and a Dry-Erase board in a garage, launched in November 2005 and became an internet sensation within four weeks or so. The lawsuits started rolling in three months after the launch, but that didn’t stop Google from buying the site in October 2006 for $1.76 billion worth of stock.

Google said last week they had put aside $200 million to deal with legal issues, but Viacom is suing for $1 billion for losses they say have incurred after roughly 160,000 videos of their property was broadcast by YouTube without compensation, with viewings in the billions.

And there is another federal class-action lawsuit, filed last week by European sports leagues and music publishers who obviously do not share the “information wants to be free” philosophy.

Filmmaker Michael Moore, man of the people though he is, has become less than enamored of the site since unauthorized copies of his newest film, Sicko, were downloaded to it and viewed by hundreds of people two weeks before its theatrical release.

YouTube has also come under fire for failure to protect the privacy of its registered users, which is another fine mess.

But then….

In the face of all these legal woes, the company is expanding aggressively. Not only is it planning to move directly into foreign markets, the company is this year trying its hand at politics. They’ve partnered with CNN in a program that encourages YouTube viewers to come up with questions for the 2008 presidential candidates for two upcoming debates and download them to the site.

We’ll take a wait-and-see attitude on that little experiment. In the meantime, we’re availing ourselves of YouTube’s free software to post video to our website (check out yesweekly.com for examples) and using the site itself to keep current on news footage we might have missed on television, the ongoing feud between Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann, summertime movie trailers, girl fights and fat people on trampolines.

And all we know for sure is that YouTube is an ambitious and innovative company which is headed for a financial gutting unless they get their ethical and legal shop in order. That, and also it’s responsible for countless hours of unproductive work time.

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