Russell's Blog

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Why YouTube Matters

Posted by Russell on October 29, 2006 at 6:19 p.m.
Originality is what we do with what we did not originate.
--- Eric Hoffer

One of the most fundamental tools available to the scholar is the quotation. Without it, the scholar would be forced to derive everything from first principles, or to rely on her audience to examine and absorb the material from cited works. Citation, for obvious reasons, is only useful of the audience has access to the cited works in the first place. Much of academic discourse would be impossible without the ability of scholars to quote one another.

The same is true in any area where ideas are currency. It is difficult to formulate a coherent critique of anything that does not dissect specific passages. This is perhaps the principle factor that has propelled blogs into the mainstream political arena; blogs routinely quote lengthy passages from their sources, whereas newspapers do not. They quote television transcripts, speeches, newspaper articles, radio broadcasts, other blogs, books, pamphlets, magazine articles, private emails and public records. The medium trivializes the process required to include very lengthy quotes and to quote sources in entirety. This is the main advantage blogs have over other media; they can provide the most complete communication of the referenced material with the least effort on the part of the author and the audience.

The defining characteristic of a blog is not the cost of publication, or immediacy, or any of the other oft-discussed advantages of blogs. On the contrary: Television and radio will always have the upper hand on immediacy, and newspaper websites can match blogs on that as well. The cost of publication is only small if you happen to be very unpopular. A large blog like DailyKos requires a financial commitment the same or larger than the websites of many nationally respected newspapers. Blogs are important because the content is different from other media, and the most significant difference is the use of quoted material. In style, length and in the quality of the writing, a blog post may most closely resemble a hastily composed personal email, but in structure and form, the heavy use of quotations in support of arguments strongly resembles scholarly writing. Blogs are casual scholarship.

This is why it is critically important for sites like YouTube to be allowed to re-publish copyrighted material. Quotation is an essential tool for critical analysis. The nature of the broadcast and distribution systems for television, movies and radio make it cost prohibitive or even impossible for the audience to obtain and comprehend the cited work. It is insufficient to say, "what Keith Olberman said seven minutes and sixteen seconds into the broadcast of last Tuesday's edition of his show." To impose such limitations on scholarship, casual or otherwise, is to prohibit discussion.

The right to use copyrighted material, without permission, in original work is a well-established aspect of fair use. Children across the country are taught how to go to the library and extract and cite quotes for their assignments. Thousands of journals publish articles riddled with quotations from copyrighted works every month. The standards of plagiarism and academic honesty are appropriate for this sort of work, the standards of theft and property ownership are not. The practice of "quoting" video clips is a practice frequently used by television producers themselves. There is a double standard in operation here: Comedy Central asserts that bloggers do not have the right to display clips of Jon Stewart's Daily Show, yet Jon Stewart's Daily Show may display clips of CNN, CBS, NBC and ABC broadcasts.

Clearly, the law grants the owners of the cited works some exclusive rights to those works. However, it is just as important to protect the rights of the public to use those works in original work. It is inappropriate to apply standards that require a person to belong to a particular community ("serious" academics or "serious" news broadcasters) in order to be granted the right to quote copyrighted material.

Google is wrong to excise clips from YouTube without requiring the copyright owners to demonstrate that the clips are not being used as legitimate quotations in original works.

Of course, I can't be the only, or even the first person to come to this conclusion. As Abraham Lincoln said, "Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren't very new at all."

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