Goliath vs. Goliath: The Google – Viacom Decision and P2P (BitTorrent)
The immensely important and long-awaited ruling in the Google vs. Viacom came down this week (June 23, 2010).Google v. Viacom_decision I’m hoping to write something on this case that has been in the making for the past 3 to 4 years in the next few days.
It tells us a lot about the role of ‘media aggregators’ like Google, and the relationship between ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ media. In some ways, the decision vindicates Google’s role in acting as a ‘responsible intermediary’ within the meaning of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. More problematically, if Google sees the decision as giving a green light to its dubious ‘act now, ask questions’ later approach, tough times lie ahead for all those opposed to the cavalier approach that it is taking towards the digitization of the world’s stock of books, newspaper articles, as well as its systematic collection and storage of people’s personal information. Although the Google v. Viacom decision can be seen as rewarding Google for its devil-be-damned approach to the law, other media, and users, at its core the decision highlighted the tangled web of agreements and technological measures that Google has created in consultation with the major media industry players — including Viacom — to monitor, and send to cyberia, ‘offending content’. In other words, Google plays an active role as an arm of copyright enforcement, and is not the outlaw that it is often made out to be. This could be good news for P2P networks such as BitTorrent. So long as they can show good faith efforts to take down copyright protected content when notified, they can continue to distribute media of all kinds without the burden of having to become ‘copyright cops’.
Viacom comes out of all this looking rather lame. For one, it comes across as more foe than fan of user-created content and the ‘remix’ culture of ‘mass self-expression’ upon which YouTube, Facebook, BitTorrent, and other elements of the ‘social media’ and P2P media culture thrive. In addition, Viacom-CBS appears to favour the heavy hand of litigation over innovation — a well-known feature of media history throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and now in the 21st century. Lastly, Viacom just looks silly. The actions taken by Viacom-CBS have been all over the map, and have often worked at cross purposes with one another, as the company tried to squash YouTube — after having failed to carry through with its own bid to acquire the company before Google did in 2006. For instance, while some divisions of the sprawling media conglomerate (the 5th largest in the world) tried to have episodes of the Daily Show and other Comedy Channel shows removed from the site, over at the hip and well-hyped MTV — another entity in the Viacom stable — staff were uploading stuff from their offices, or the Kinkos copy shop down the street. This had more of a keystone-cops feel to it than that of a well-oiled, rational corporate media machine.
In the end, this is no David vs. Goliath story, but rather one of Goliath vs. Goliath. Viacom and Google are two colossal media entities and this event needs to be seen first and foremost as a corporate struggle between these two entities that will help to shape the future of the media for us all. With revenues of roughly $24b in 2009, Google now stands on par with the world’s largest media conglomerates and would be ranked the sixth largest media firm in the world just after Viacom CBS if we included it in such a ‘league table’. Yet, Google is a content integrator, and not a content creator, and it is this reality plus its brusque, above-the-law ‘act now, ask questions later’ approach that pose serious challenges to the established rules of the game. The Google vs. Viacom, or Goliath v. Goliath, decision exemplifies this reality and can be seen as just the latest installment ongoing corporate struggles over the shifting terrain of the network media industries.
One lesson that is clear, is that aiming to suppress the creative gales of techno-economic and cultural change, as Viacom did, is unlikely to work over the long-run. That’s a lesson that the movie and television industries should have learned at least since the Beta and VHS wars and legal wrangling in the 1980s, but did not, even though video subsequently became a vast new market for the incumbents. Indeed, that same lesson goes back to the dawn of television, when Hollywood struggled for a decade to find a new footing within the changing mediascape. Ultimately, however, television turned out to be a highly lucrative new market, indeed, so much so that between the 1980s and the mid-2000s, all of the major Hollywood film studios and television networks merged: i.e. Disney owns ABC, Viacom holds CBS, News Corp. is the parent company of Fox and Twentieth Century, NBC-Universal Pictures stand in the same light, and so on.
The simple lesson is that, more often than not, new media create vast new markets and opportunities for incumbents to expand. The sky-is-falling rhetoric of Viacom and other media outlets around this specific case, Google, the Internet and the quickly changing mediascape overall is, by and large, a side-show and part and parcel of efforts whereby language and stories are mobilized in defense of entrenched economic interests. By and large, it is favourable to user-created content, but its vindication of Google’s cavalier approach to fundamental issues does not bode well for the future of still-evolving network media ecology as a whole, in my view.
I’ll give this some more thought and, perhaps, write a bit more about the issues later.