Will the crackdown on video-sharing sites put a damper on public opinion and discourse?

The big issues are, I think, what material should be copyrightable, and whether the existing rights associated with copyright law are appropriate for today's soaking-in-multimedia world.

Situation 1: film in full

If Joe in Joliet takes his camcorder with him when he goes to see a film, tapes the movie, and then uploads the entire thing to a video-sharing site for hundreds of thousands to see, clearly Joe should get busted. If the video-sharing site encouraged him to upload the video or promotes it in any way, the site should get busted as well.

(Note that YouTube limits files to 10 minutes in length, so you couldn't really do this anyway. But for the sake of argument, let's continue.)

Situation 2: film clips

What if Joe clips out 10 minutes from his DVD copy of Bull Durham and uploads it? He didn't rip the entire movie; heck, people who watch the clip might be encouraged to go out and buy the movie. Should Joe get jumped by studio lawyers?

Situation 3: TV

And what about clips taken from television? If you upload an entire episode, commercials and all, and millions of people watch it on YouTube rather than their living-room tubes, you could argue that the TV company should get credit for the viewings in its Nielsen ratings, rather than get bent out of shape. Perhaps it should pay YouTube in this case, rather than the other way around. Indeed, several media companies have already forged agreements to put some of their content on YouTube and share advertising revenue. Since I expressed concern about Universal Music, that company has signed its own agreement with the site.

However, Joe from the street would probably upload highlights of a show without the interstitial adverts that the television network would insist on. I agree that studios ought to be able to make money from commercials, but some bootleggers may perform a valuable editorial public service.

For example, if someone clips a few telling segments from the US show Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy and adds some comments to illustrate his point that the show is an affront to humanity, I'd value his opinion much more highly than one from someone who simply writes that in a blog posting. From a studio's standpoint, this constitutes illegal distribution; from a consumer standpoint, something like this ought to be protected free speech.

Situation 4: news

Now what about things that aren't original creations, such as news clips? A reporter recently sued over the posting of his video of the beating of Reginald Denny to YouTube. He shot the video during the riots sparked by the police officers who arrested Rodney King being acquitted of any crimes (click here to read more about the incident).

Although the clip is horrifying, I'd argue that it's something that should be in the public domain: it's already been seen by millions and millions of people, it's historical, and it's educational. How do we learn from the past if we have to pay to see such things?

See this Wikipedia entry if you have an afternoon to kill reading up on the subject of public domain. But the idea is that it's for the common good that society has access to some works. The Denny video, I think, falls into this category, but it's only 14 years old – under current law, it's decades short of falling into the public domain.

The issues here are so complicated that no one seems capable of resolving them in an unbiased way. Organisations such as the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) have done an admirable job of fighting for consumers' rights, but even its efforts haven't put the issue down. That indicates to me that copyright issues will be remain a threat to the internet. Do you disagree?