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The Rise of the Clip Culture

Appeared in the Toronto Star on March 20, 2006 as Amateurs Shaking Up Broadcasting
Appeared on the BBC on March 20, 2006 as The Rise of the Clip Culture Online
Appeared in the South Morning China Post on April 4, 2006 as New Challenges As Clip Culture Moves into Frame

The telecommunications and broadcast industries’ vision of the future of the Internet invariably involves its convergence with television.  Large telecommunications companies are busy gearing up for this future by investing heavily in new high-speed networks whose focus is not faster Internet connectivity, but rather entry into the high-definition television broadcast market.  Similarly, the major broadcasters are emphasizing the need to deliver their content across multiple platforms including conventional television, Internet download and streaming services, as well as wireless devices.

Based on pilot projects and other small-scale initiatives, it is fair to say that this future is already here.  For example, Telus is actively expanding its high-definition television coverage, while last month Bell offered cellphone subscribers access to Olympic highlights.

Similar technological developments are even more advanced in other countries.  Office workers throughout the United States were glued to their computer screens last week as CBS streamed the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament online, while in South Korea thousands of people now have access to broadcast quality television on their cellphones.

Notwithstanding their blueprints for the future, the Internet may not unfold exactly as planned.  Standing in the way is the explosive growth of the "clip culture," a term coined by one expert to capture the massive growth of Internet-based video sharing and distribution.

The emergence of video sharing sites is yet another seemingly instant Internet success story that has caught many analysts by surprise.  

Last month, two sites – MSN Video and Youtube – attracted nearly ten million unique U.S. visitors each.  While those numbers pale in comparison to network television viewership, widespread video sharing is just getting started. Youtube, which is home to 25 million videos and streams 15 million of them each day, just launched its service last year.

Most of the videos on Youtube and other video sharing services are not full-length features.  Instead, taking their cue from the movie studios (whose previews or trailers are little more than a collection of clips) and sports networks (whose popular highlight shows are nothing but clips), the overwhelming majority of videos are shorter clips running anywhere from a few seconds to a couple of minutes.

The clips themselves fall into three broad categories.  Homegrown or "amateur" clips constitute a significant percentage of the collection as the mushrooming of user-generated content moves from blog postings to innovative multimedia featuring audio and video.  These clips should not be underestimated – while user-generated content was previously all but unavailable to the general public (with the forgettable exception of television shows such as America’s Funniest Home Videos), the best of user-generated video today attracts large audiences and competes with anything being offered on the major networks.

Montage videos, which represent the next-generation of protest and fan sites, constitute the second category. A Youtube search for President George Bush yields hundreds of videos, many of which bring together multiple clips to make powerful political statements.  Meanwhile, a similar search for NHL rookie sensation Alexander Ovechkin produces dozens of compilations of highlight reel goals.

The third category – clips of network television shows – has generated the most controversy.  Video sharing sites contain thousands of clips that previously aired on television.  In some instances, the clips appear with the approval of the broadcaster either because the clip is available for a fee (some Google Video clips are available for purchase) or because the broadcaster has embraced the benefits of free publicity and cost-free distribution.

The availability of some clips has drawn the ire of some broadcasters, however.  Two recent clips from Saturday Night Live were viewed millions of times on these sharing sites, prompting NBC, the show’s broadcaster, to send legal letters demanding that the clips be removed.

Given the recent developments, the policy and business implications of video sharing are beginning to generate attention. For policy makers, this form of user generated content raises questions about how best to support an important outlet for cultural and political expression.  

Moreover, it raises the prospect of possible legal reforms, including the introduction of a robust fair use provision, explicit protection for parody, and a re-examination of the law surrounding derivative works.  These provisions play a key role in establishing the conditions upon which individuals can create new works that build upon the content of others.

From a business perspective, media companies are being forced to grapple with the competitive threat of user-generated content and to determine how to address unauthorized sharing of their clips.  Many now actively seek innovative new user-generated content and leverage video sharing sites to create greater interest in their programming.  For example, MTV2, part of the MTV music station family, and Deep Focus, the agency used by film studios to promote their movies, are working with Youtube to distribute content.

Telecommunications companies and intransigent broadcasters face an even tougher choice, as their vision of an on-demand converged Internet, must now compete with the clip culture.  That presents new challenges, since users are increasingly not satisfied with merely consuming content, but rather demand the ability to share and re-create it.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at or online at

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