Whose tube is it anyway?


Let’s consider the saga of YouTube for a moment, the internet video site that altered our consciousness in such a short time.

The story goes that Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, along with Jawed Karim, start the thing in Hurley’s garage in February 2005 with nothing but an idea and a dry-erase board. In November 2005 Hurley and Chen, both former PayPal employees, launch the site. Its popularity grows exponentially and within weeks, due in part to the presence of an infamous clip from “Saturday Night Live” called “Lazy Sunday,” its catalog blooms and it becomes one of the most popular sites on the internet. In February 2006, just a year after the inception of the site, NBC Universal takes legal action against them, pulling all NBC clips including “Lazy Sunday.” But by the summer YouTube has become so popular that NBC reverses its position and authors a partnership with the site. And in October, Chen and Hurley sell out to Google for $1.65 billion in stock.

Twenty months; $1.65 billion. With a B.

The saga continues with a Director Program for amateur filmmakers, another widely-downloaded “SNL” clip featuring Justin Timberlake and a racy Christmas present, and acceptance by other broadcast networks – CBS comes around in July.

It’s a fantastic story of an American overnight success, blending technology, ingenuity and timing, as well as nicely illustrating the principle of viral marketing and the theory of the long tail.

But the elephant in the room is still copyright infringement, and the lawsuits and cease-and-desist letters have been rolling in, though not quite as steadily as zuma zuma parody videos.

The latest fray has the internet video site banned from the nation of Brazil, a result of persistent posting by users of an unauthorized video of Brazilian supermodel Daniela Cicarelli having sex in the ocean with her boyfriend.

Facing fines by the Brazilian government of up to $119,000 each day that the video remains on the site, YouTube is frantically purging itself of the clip.

The problem, as anyone with an embarrassing item or two in a Google search of his name can tell you, is that the video will never die. Like every other epochal internet meme, the grainy footage will live in digital perpetuity – trying to scrub something from the web is like trying to stop frost from forming on your car on a cold winter’s morn.

The Brazilian government was successful in blocking YouTube to a big chunk of the country, yet the sexy video survives on hundreds of sites and perhaps millions of hard drives after being introduced to the world- for free – by Hurley and Chen’s dreamchild.

Does this make YouTube culpable?

Google is rumored to have laid aside between $200 and $500 million to deal with YouTube’s lawsuit issues. We have a pretty good hunch that they’re going to need every penny.