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An Open Letter to Stephen Colbert, star of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report”

We in the Colbert Nation are sickened by the recent news that heavy-handed trial lawyers at Viacom, representing Comedy Central, have asked YouTube to force its users to remove video clips from “The Colbert Report,” “The Daily Show,” and “South Park.” While those lawyers have legal standing to do this, it goes against the spirit of Internet sharing and viral promotion — two phenomena that have helped make your show so popular in the first place. It just doesn’t sound like you, Stephen, baby.

If anything, you have been a bright shining star of Internet experimentation, freedom of expression online, and prankster extraordinaire in the long tradition of online pranksters. In fact, your track record online is awe-inspiring, stunning and a beacon of perfection for any wannabe entertainment outfit trying to find their sea legs on the Internets. Think I’m just puffing you up to tear you down? Well of course, but this stuff is seriously brilliant and worth listing here:

> Wikipedia hijinks: You asked your audience to change the entries on the community-run encyclopedia in order to “create a reality we can all agree on — the reality we just agreed on.” And they did wreak havoc on Wikipedia, leading to technical problems on the site and an editorial “lock” on 20 elephant-related entries.

> Green screen challenge: You posted videos online of yourself doing a “Star Wars” light-saber battle scene, and asked people to create their own videos with the footage. They did, and you included them on the show, calling them “heroes.”

> Bridge naming: You asked your audience to go online and vote for a bridge in Hungary to be named after, well, you. It appears that you won that online vote, edging out Jon Stewart.

I don’t know if these were all your brainstorms, those of your geeky interns, or a combination thereof — it doesn’t matter. The simple fact is that you have used the Internet in the way it was meant to be used, to generate buzz, get people involved and build a true online community whose own work could be showcased on your TV program. That’s in the spirit of Web 2.0, a fancy-schmancy term for letting your audience in on the fun, letting them vote and mash-up video and edit Wikipedia to their heart’s (and your heart’s) desire.

Your lawyers and the suits at Viacom think they’ve got a great new way to make money online. “Hmmmm,” they sneer, as they rub their hands together. “We will shut down videos from ‘Colbert Report’ over at YouTube and other video sharing sites so that people will come to Comedy Central’s site and watch video there, where we can play three ads for every video clip! Mwah-ha-ha [echoes]!!!”

Nice idea, but one problem. When the Colbert Nation goes to YouTube to trade clips or watch them, it’s an easy interface, simple to use, simple to watch. When they go to Comedy Central’s Motherload, guess what they’re in for? A bloated interface, with little control over what you want to watch, and you have to download a special software plug-in if you use the Firefox browser. If you have a Mac? Forget it. No “Colbert” for you!

As one hardcore Nation fan wrote on the No Fact Zone blog:

The glory days of YouTube are officially over. I knew it would happen, but I never thought it would happen only three months after I started up this website. (sigh) Now, all is not totally lost. Comedy Central does have Motherload. However, one cannot post Motherload clips onto a blog, or bookmark them and save as favorites, or actually play them with any relative ease. But at least it’s something.

It’s something, but that something isn’t good, and is one reason Viacom CEO Tom Freston was shown the door. This is the time for you, Stephen, to show your bosses the error of their ways, to step up to the plate and show them the importance of share and share alike online, and how the Internet has helped stoke the flames of your fiery stardom. Don’t let the flame of freedom burn out now.

Think I’m alone in this wacky view of letting people view your clips everywhere? Nope.

WindyPundit says:

“Are they insane? What else are they going to do with the old episodes? It’s current events television.”

Sean Coon has his own open letter, where he says:

“You had thousands of fans, like me, pointing to and contextualizing clips from their blogs, generating millions of page views and legions of new viewers and you killed it because they weren’t your page views. So dumb.”

C.A. Bridges of the Daytona Beach News-Journal writes:

“There’s no question that companies have the right and the duty to protect their copyrights. But those mixed signals [promoting material and sending out cease-and-desist letters] are getting a little loud.”


So now I’m throwing down my own MediaShift challenge. Create a video that expresses the collective thoughts of the Colbert Nation on this issue, and post it to YouTube, with a link to it below in the comments. You’re welcome to use my words above, write your own, videotape yourself — just keep it relatively clean as this is public blogcasting, uh, broadcasting. I’ll post a link to the best videos in this space, and send them directly to Colbert’s attention.

UPDATE: Dylan Stableford at FishBowlNY refutes the reports of massive YouTube pull-downs, saying that there are still 6,700-plus results for a South Park search. (Searches for Stephen Colbert still brought up 1,148 videos as of Monday evening.) According to Stableford, clips over 5 minutes in length were pulled, while those shorter than 5 minutes were still up. It’s true that pulling down YouTube video is tricky as you have to give notices to everyone who’s putting up copyrighted videos today, tomorrow, the next day, ad infinitum.

Also, Wiley VP Joe Wikert does a better job explaining the poor economics: of Viacom’s decision than I did in my weak humor above. Here’s the meat of his argument:

Comedy Central (and other) content will undoubtedly disappear for a bit from YouTube. Look for it to reappear with advertisements rolled in. That’s all the content owners really want, a piece of a revenue pie. They can’t be too greedy though; as I’ve also noted before, the online revenue base is going to be much, much smaller than the one they’re used to capturing via cable. Those who opt for greed will disappear from YouTube and never come back. Good luck to those folks as they try to build their own traffic; better to have a small slice of something than to have 100% of nothing.

UPDATE 2: Howard Owens thinks this story is just an unsubstantiated rumor started by Jeff Reifman of Newscloud, who posted his take-down notice from YouTube. Owens says he has run searches of “Colbert” and hasn’t seen a marked difference over the past few days. The real test would be a search on “Colbert” from before last Friday, when Reifman posted his take-down notice.

Reuters confirms through an unnamed source at Viacom that the company did request YouTube take down some copyrighted videos on the site “as part of ongoing discussions on how the two companies can work together.” In other words, this could just be a hardball negotiating tactic: “If you don’t give us a good deal at Viacom, we’ll yank all your funny stuff!”

This seems to be the Big Media negotiating tactic of choice with GoogTube post-merger. The Wall Street Journal called it “saber rattling” by a group of media companies — News Corp., NBC Universal, and Viacom, naturally — who are exploring their legal options against Google over copyright violations on YouTube. The money paragraph:

Whether the media companies eventually will file legal action is unclear, but the legal maneuvering comes as each of them is holding separate negotiations to allow YouTube to carry their programming in return for a slice of advertising revenue. Executives hope the possibility of legal action could prompt YouTube to improve terms it offers the media companies, according to people familiar with the matter.

So this whole thing with pulling clips at YouTube might just be a negotiating tactic for Viacom. Send out a few cease-and-desist letters, let bloggers and the media scare Google into thinking the sky is falling at its new baby YouTube, and then swoop in with a sweet ad deal. If that works out, then your bosses are shrewder than I expected, Stephen…

UPDATE 3: The Washington Post does a good job of summing up the issues for Big Media in pulling down or keeping up copyrighted content on YouTube. The article contrasts Comedy Central’s tougher stance to the more open view of NBC Universal, which only asks for take-downs of videos that “cross an obvious line,” such as including an entire episode of a show.

“Everybody is learning, in some sense, how to draw the line,” NBC exec Rick Cotton told the Post. “This medium is at the cutting edge. I think our creative executives feel that ‘The Office’ and ‘Saturday Night Live’ benefit from the significant attention we’ve gotten online.”

UPDATE 4: Thanks to all your thoughtful comments here. Because of the Digg post and the 1,385 Diggs and counting, I had my most trafficked day at MediaShift ever yesterday.

There’s a lot of talk about how much power Colbert himself has in the process of clips being pulled or allowed on YouTube. I addressed my open letter to Colbert because I see him as a figurehead, and also someone who “gets it” when it comes to the Internet. Whether he has any power or not, it is his artistic work on the line and he should at least know what’s going on. I was also curious if he would actually address any of this on his show at some point. While Comedy Central likely owns the intellectual property of “The Colbert Report,” Colbert or his producers must have some sway in how that is used online. Plus, it’s a lot more fun writing a letter to him than a nameless exec or lawyer.

As for the latest developments, it looks like Viacom will allow shorter clips from its shows on YouTube. While Viacom did ask for clips to be pulled, many thousand remain, and some YouTubers have written here that they have simple ways to avoid getting clips pulled by using code words for video tags instead of “Colbert” or “Jon Stewart.” In a statement sent to the Red Herring, Viacom said, “We want our audiences to be able to access our programming on every platform and we’re interested in having it live on all forms of distribution in ways that protect our talented artists, our loyal customers and our passionate audiences.”

Seems like a good idea. This is obviously a fluid situation, as Red Herring reports Viacom and YouTube have yet to reach a formal agreement. But I believe that the way fans have reacted here and on other sites does make a difference, and gives the execs at Viacom pause in trying to deal heavy-handedly with them. But most likely, this was just a negotiating tactic that Viacom used to get a better deal with Google/YouTube.