In recent years, much of the interest in online video has focused on its effects on mainstream or conventional television – the emergence of a "clip culture," where popular segments of television programs draw larger audiences on websites like YouTube than on conventional television. My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that the shift of conventional broadcast to the Internet is remarkable, but it misses important developments for longer form video.
For example, last week I released Why Copyright? Canadian Voices on Copyright Law, a 47-minute documentary on copyright reform. Produced with filmmaker and law student Daniel Albahary, the documentary examines why copyright has emerged as an important issue and features a wide range of Canadian voices including Nettwerk Record's Terry McBride, Hamilton Tiger Cats owner Bob Young, Toronto-based science fiction author Karl Schroeder, and Privacy Commissioner of Canada Jennifer Stoddart.
While this is hardly the first film about copyright, the release was noteworthy since it occurred exclusively online and in the process highlighted the potential for independent creators to use the power of Internet distribution to level the cultural playing field.
Finding ways to distribute films may have once posed a significant barrier, but that is clearly no longer the case. Why Copyright? was posted to online video sites such as YouTube and Blip.tv, who offer free streaming distribution. Another version was posted to Dot-Sub, a video streaming site that enables viewers to create sub-titles in other languages. Further versions were made available via BitTorrent, allowing people to download the entire DVD of the film. Within days, thousands of people had viewed the film at virtually no cost (links to the online versions can be found at copyrightvoices.ca).
My experience is not unique as the Internet is now filled with examples of filmmakers by-passing the conventional theatre and DVD distribution systems. For example, earlier this year Michael Moore, one of the world's best-known documentary filmmakers, released his latest work – Slacker Uprising – free online. The film, which was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, can be downloaded by anyone in Canada and the United States or viewed as a streamed version on Blip.tv.
The same is true for Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning, a Finnish parody of Star Trek and Babylon 5 that has been described as the most popular Finnish film of all time. The independent feature-length film has been freely downloaded millions of times and can be viewed as a streamed version on Google Video.
Why Copyright? is strictly non-commercial; however, the use of Internet distribution is also emerging as an effective business model. In the case of Slacker Uprising, a DVD version of the movie can be purchased directly from the site, leading to higher profit margins for Moore. The Star Wreck film has also become a commercial success, having earned back the creators' investment through merchandise and DVD sales.
These experiments point to the potential for taking films from the big screen to the computer screen. Combining free Internet streaming or downloading with a commercial model that may include DVD sales (with an assortment of special features), merchandise sales, broadcast license fees, and advertising revenues hold the promise of generating wider audiences and providing a financial payback for creators.
The popularity of short clips online may garner the lion share of attention, but it is the potential to use the same distribution channels for full-length video that may ultimately reshape the industry for both creators and the businesses that market and distribute their work.