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photos by Lara Shipley

Videoblogging and Copyright

October 9th, 2009 · 11 Comments

So, the video in my previous post—rather half-assedly assembled on a late-night whim in my apartment (and judging by the comments, I should really tidy up said apartment a bit next time such a whim strikes)—seems to have become a whole lot more successful than I’d have thought possible. What I’d love to do in the future is take advantage of some of the equipment and (as important) editing talent at Cato to do more occasional short videos—maybe five-minute “explainers” of some important but slightly obscure topic like National Security Letters that would give a quick but semi-thorough account of issues that can seem impenetrable to people who care but don’t have time to wade through the stacks of paper I spend my days with.

The thing is, as I started drafting a tentative script and blocking out shots, I realized that my intuition and my sensibility is to bricolage tiny snippets of visual pop culture to illustrate what I’m talking about.  So, for instance, I though about something like this:

Voice Over: The first statutes authorizing National Security Letters were passed back in the 70s, but with the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act…
Newly-passed Laws walking down Capitol steps from Schoolhouse Rock, How a Bill Becomes a Law.

Voice Over: …powers that had been quite narrow and limited grew massive in scope…
Video: Soldiers shooting at giant monster ants from the classic sci-fi movie Them!

Now, by any sane standard, it seems to me, this kind of appropriation should be covered by the principle of Fair Use. The video would be non-commercial and educational in nature. The copying would be “transformative,” using the copied material as a small element of an original and very different form of expression. The proportion of each work used would be miniscule—never more than a few seconds—and indeed, partial, insofar as I probably wouldn’t use the audio in most cases. And in no plausible way would the quotation of those short snippets affect the market for the original work or derivative works.

Yet as I noted in one of my very first videoblogs, we seem to have reached a level of copyright insanity where a lot of people—or at least a lot of lawyers—would feel very anxious about all this copying, however intuitively it might seem to be covered by fair use. And that creates a vicious cycle where the principle itself seems to contract as licensing of even the most minimal copying becomes normalized.

It might seem that the kind of appropriation I suggest above is frivolous—that I could just as easily make a video without it.  But I don’t think that’s true. Sure, I could deliver a dry lecture on National Security Letters, maybe punctuated with some PowerPoint slides, but it wouldn’t be nearly as engaging or visually dynamic. And more generally, this fear of quotation and allusion in multimedia work robs us of the ability to make use of our shared culture in absolutely vital ways we take for granted in speech and writing. In an op-ed on the same topic, someone might write that “Big Brother is watching.” Think of all that goes on there. At the content level, it acts as a kind of conceptual hyperlink, invoking a whole rich set of associations that serve to anchor and reinforce the point in the reader’s mind. But at a meta-level, it also binds writer and reader together as members of the same community of reference.   You know something has gone badly wrong with American copyright when such a natural human cultural activity—funny as it might sound to call video editing for YouTube “natural”—exists under such a shadow of uncertainty.

Tags: Journalism & the Media · Language and Literature · Law



11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Barry // Oct 9, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    1) Associate with a college in any way, shape or form, and play ‘academic use’.
    2) Also, contact the EFF, and get some advice on what constitutes ‘fair use’.
    3) Remember that somebody will *always* say ‘you can’t do that’. Once you ‘ve listened to them, and believe that they’re wrong, your job is to route around them.

  • 2 JasonN // Oct 9, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    Barry pretty well covers one solution.

    Another solution:

    You could also simply recreate that clip (like Family Guy) and call it parody and you’re covered.

  • 3 JasonN // Oct 9, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    Oh, and I like the guitar in the corner. Most people simply use a drop cloth. It’s much faster than cleaning. Or, do like I do and just not care.

  • 4 Timothy // Oct 9, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    Julian, I’m not sure if you’ve seen this but this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CJn_jC4FNDo created using clips from Disney films, might be instructive.

  • 5 silentbeep // Oct 9, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    I like Barry’s suggestions, follow them Julian. My first thought after reading this post was: just do it. I’m surprised it was on a “whim” it was really good. But you knew that already.

  • 6 sam // Oct 11, 2009 at 6:42 am


    I was surprised that someone of your age knows that film. My surprise reflects more on me than on you, of course. The one scene that sticks out in my mind is the one where James Whitmore is questioning the rail yard guard (played by a wonderful old character actor whose name escapes me) after the ants have broken into a railroad car and made off with 20 tons of sugar. The guard, thinking they think he may have stolen the sugar, says, “How am I gonna fence 20 tons of sugar?” You might try making a short video on the sorry state of copyright and calling it “Fencing 20 Tons of Sugar”. I can imagine a really impish production based on that hoary “This sentence is false” conundrum.

  • 7 George // Oct 11, 2009 at 10:29 am

    The video fisking was popular because it resembles actual journalism. People need a source to fact check Fox and the like. Plus, you did it in a fair and balanced way by showing their ignorance on a topic while not labeling them liars.

    Nicely done.

    Giving civics lessons, although necessary, not likely to be all that popular. My guess is people who read Cato blogs don’t need primers. However, all people need honest journalism.

  • 8 Julian Sanchez // Oct 11, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    I don’t know, people like to understand stuff–they just maybe don’t like listening to talking heads drone. Also, effective use of images linked to explanation can help people retain more of the information in a video than they might just listening, which increases the return on the time investment. I guess we’ll see…

    As for needing primers… Sure, the modal Cato reader probably don’t need a “this is what the first amendment says” level primer. But in my experience, even the incredibly politically well-informed people I know in DC really only know in a very general and basic way how NSLs work, how PATRIOT changed them, and so on.

  • 9 Emily // Oct 12, 2009 at 1:35 pm

    Would love to see more of these. Go for it. Inter”text”uality FTW.

    Though the success of your Fox video provides yet another reminder that: http://xkcd.com/202/

  • 10 Elizabeth Ames // Oct 14, 2009 at 10:18 pm

    I luv the videoblogs, Don’t think I need to give my reasons.

  • 11 r4 ds games // Oct 28, 2009 at 3:07 am

    one thing is for sure… video blogs have high page rankings…. any link on that page will get ranking higher too…. keep posting. Will be visiting back soon.