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Video artist Elisa Kreisinger warns about the “death of the YouTube mashup”

Anyone who cares about video remix culture — which should include every regular visitor to this site — may want to re-think their use of YouTube in the wake of its decision to formalize its relationship with big media companies. The threat to indie artists whose companies fail to reach an agreement with YouTube has been widely publicized. But an article in The Daily Dot suggests that an entire creative subculture based around YouTube may be in danger as well. If a big media company objects to a mashup, Brooklyn-based video artist Elisa Kreisinger discovered that YouTube now seems quite willing to completely ignore the Fair Use provision of U.S. copyright law and similar, international legal allowances for parody and remixing.

It took 24 hours to create my mashup, but 10 months to get to the bottom of why it was blocked. And even after I discovered why it was blocked, I still could not get it back up. If large content companies have the power to usurp the rule of law for their own purposes and make anything disappear, why bother making mashups?

YouTube was the birthplace of the mashup. And because it is the largest video site on the Internet, it’s important that cultural critiques like remixes and mashups be here for public consumption. But now mine, and so any others that drew from Universal’s library, remain disabled.

YouTube describes itself as “a forum for people to connect, inform, and inspire others across the globe.” But a forum that gives big members extra powers to silence everyone else will never be as vibrant as it should be. To be the forum it aspires to be—that it should be—YouTube needs to stop cutting special deals with big rightsholders like Universal Music Group and start encouraging creativity again. That’s true even if creativity makes Universal Music Group uncomfortable. If YouTube doesn’t get rid of special deals, they threaten to kill the very originality that made the site great in the first place.

Read the full article at The Daily Dot. And remember: videos posted at Vimeo or Dailymotion, for example, can go viral just as easily. Technologically speaking, there’s nothing special about YouTube, and I don’t think it needs to be nearly as dominant as it has become. There are other video-hosting sites that are much more committed to freedom of expression.

Disney owns patent for “video poetry” generator

Last week I received a rather surprising email from videopoetry pioneer Tom Konyves: “I thought you might enjoy this.” The link leads to a Google Patents record, “System and method for video poetry using text based related media, US 20110239099 A1.” Filed in March 2010 and published in September of the following year, the patent describes a semi-automatic, algorithmically guided method for creating videopoems, with an eye to generating viral content and commercial tie-ins. Here’s the abstract:

There is provided a system and method for creating video poetry using text based related media. There is provided a method for creating a video poetry media, the method comprising receiving an ordered list of text phrases selected from a defined plurality of text phrases, presenting a plurality of video clips, wherein each of the plurality of video clips is associated with one or more of the ordered list of text phrases, receiving an ordered list of video clips selected from the plurality of video clips, and generating the video poetry media using the ordered list of video clips. In this manner, the barrier of entry for creating video poetry media is reduced, encouraging increased user participation and the creation of the “viral” effect by sharing video poetry online. Positive publicity for associated brands and media properties and additional channels for commercial promotions are thereby provided.

I have several reactions to this. I’ve never believed that bad poetry threatens good poetry merely by its existence, though it does of course create the need for curation, because in any uncurated space, bad poetry usually drives out the good in a version of Gresham’s Law. Also, it’s not inevitable that machine-generated poetry will be bad. Visit @Pentametron on Twitter if you have doubts about that. The specific method described for generating text and video in the patent application does sound as if it could result in some laughably literal mash-ups, though:

FIG. 2 presents a user interface for selecting text based related media for video poetry, according to one embodiment of the present invention. As shown in display 200 of FIG. 2, the user is invited to select from a variety of text based related media to match to each text phrase selected in FIG. 1. Thus, the user is invited to select from media 1, 2, or 3 for the text phrase “Lilo”, from media 4 or 5 for the text phrase “loves”, and from media 6, 7, or 8 for the text phrase “surf”. For example, media 1 through 3 may show various video clips of the character Lilo, media 4 through 5 may show various video clips related to the concept of “love”, such as hearts or kissing, and media 6 through 8 may show various video clips of surfing or surfboards.

Perhaps a way can be devised to guide creators toward more figurative or suggestive word-image pairings. But there remains the problem of commercial tackiness:

The video poetry may enjoy viral distribution, providing positive publicity for both the user and the original content providers associated with the video content. Additionally, some users may become inspired to create their own video poetry using the easy to use system described herein, further enhancing the viral effect. Furthermore, by optionally inserting promotional elements such as pre-roll advertisements or web links to related products or services, companies can also receive direct monetary benefits as well.

I’m told that the mere fact that Disney has patented this “system and method” doesn’t mean anyone’s actually written the software, or even that anyone seriously intends to. But that fact that they went to all the trouble and expense to file a patent does say something about the growing popularity of online videos as a means for disseminating poetry. It may seem surprising that a corporation would care about something generally considered so economically marginal as poetry, but as we’ve seen with certain TV ads using poets and/or poems over the years, it’s precisely poetry’s non-commercial nature that lends it such coveted authenticity.

There’s a further irony here, in that the Disney corporation through years of lobbying Congress bears unique responsibility for the absurd over-extension of copyright terms in the US (and subsequently around the world). This despite the fact that at least 50 Disney movies were remixes of stories in the public domain. Disney aggressively pursues violators of its own intellectual property, including mash-ups using Disney characters that have been around for decades. They consider this piracy. But the real pirates in a capitalist system are the monopolist corporations themselves. It’s no wonder that they would think of trying to hijack remix culture for their own ends.

A popular means of creative expression is the “video mash-up”, similar to a music video or promotional clip. By creatively mixing and transitioning different video clips together and adding effects or other unique touches, there is potential to create a video that is more than the sum of its parts. By sharing such videos with friends and colleagues online, the videos may enjoy viral popularity and bring increased customer awareness to featured brands and media properties. Users can have fun creating and watching video mash-ups shared online while content providers and brands can enjoy positive publicity.

But here’s the thing. Videopoets could, if we wanted, launch a preemptive strike and co-opt Disney’s patent application. It turns out that, according to the Wikipedia,

In the United States “the text and drawings of a patent are typically not subject to copyright restrictions.”.[1] A patent applicant may obtain copyright protection or mask work protection for the content of their patent application if they include the following notice in their application:[2]

“A portion of the disclosure of this patent document contains material which is subject to (copyright or mask work) protection. The (copyright or mask work) owner has no objection to the facsimile reproduction by anyone of the patent document or the patent disclosure, as it appears in the Patent and Trademark Office patent file or records, but otherwise reserves all (copyright or mask work) rights whatsoever.”

If this copyright notice is not included, then “anyone is free to copy and disseminate the drawings of an issued patent for any purpose.

A discussion among a bunch of legal experts on LinkedIn seems to bear this out.

Needless to say, if anyone does remix lines and phrases from Disney’s video poetry patent application into a found-poetry video, be sure to send me the link. Maybe we can make it go viral!

Is it ever O.K. to use a copyrighted text in a video without the copyright holder’s permission?

Annie Ferguson, curator of The Fluid Raven, sent along an interesting question:

Could you help me out with an appropriation dilemma? How are artists using recordings of poets like Plath and Oliver in their videos without being illegitimate? Is there a place where these poems are free to grab and use?

I’m a filmmaker/poet and wanted to create cinepoems with the words of famous poets, but I ran into copyright infringement. Yikes. I’d love to know more about it though, because I think it’s important for filmmakers to share poets’ work in a new way.

I asked Annie’s permission to share her question here. My off-the-cuff response was that if we’re not getting permission from the copyright holders, we are leaving themselves open to being sued for copyright infringement. (Or at least getting a take-down notice under the DMCA). That said, a liberal interpretation of the Fair Use provision in U.S. copyright law might find that envideoing a poem is sufficiently transformative to pass muster. The Center for Social Media’s Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Online Video suggests, for example:

Unlike many traditional creator groups, nonprofessional and personal video makers often create and circulate their videos outside the marketplace. Such works, especially if they are circulated within a delimited network, do enjoy certain copyright advantages. Not only are they less likely to attract the attention of rights holders, but if noticed they are more likely to receive special consideration under the fair use doctrine. That said, our goal here is to define the widely accepted contours of fair use that apply with equal force across a range of commercial and noncommercial activities, without regard to how video maker communities’ markets may evolve. Thus, the principles articulated below are rooted squarely in the concept of “transformativeness.”

In fact, a transformative purpose often underlies an individual creator’s investment of substantial time and creative energy in producing a mashup, a personal video, or other new work. Images and sounds can be building blocks for new meaning, just as quotations of written texts can be. Emerging cultural expression deserves recognition for transformative value as much as more established expression.

More professional filmmakers will of course make an effort to contact rights holders. In some cases, they may be asked to pay quite a lot of money. But an even more insurmountable difficulty may be finding out who holds the rights in the case of poets who are long dead and out-of-print. If you’re using a translation, you need permission from both the translator and (I think) the original author. I’ve gotten around that on a couple of occasions by doing my own translations and hoping the poets’ heirs weren’t litigious. (Needless to say, the Fair Use provision only applies to poets who were U.S. citizens.)

Another way out of this dilemma might be to forget about the big names and look for poets who apply Creative Commons licenses to their work (the kind that don’t include the phrase “no derivative works,” abbreviated “ND” in the short form of the license), or simply work with living, web-active poets who are quick to respond and unlikely to ask for money. And of course an ever-growing number of classic poems enter the public domain every year. But fortunately (from my perspective as a reader and viewer) there are good filmmakers with a bit of an outlaw mentality who shoot first and ask questions later. Without them, we might not have any good videopoems for poets like Plath and Oliver.

Have you ever broken copyright to make a filmpoem, cinepoem or videopoem? Are there any circumstances under which you think it might be permissible?

Poetry animator Jim Clark’s YouTube account suspended

UPDATE (2/15/11): As Jim informs us in a comment (see below), he’s back with a new YouTube account.

Sometime in the past two or three weeks, Jim Clark’s poetryanimations channel at YouTube was terminated. Alex Cigale just discovered this today when going back to look at Clark’s video for the Russian Symbolist poet Zinaida Gippius. The notice on what used to be his account page reads,

YouTube account poetryanimations has been terminated because we received multiple third-party notifications of copyright infringement from claimants including:

* Walt Whitman House/Walt Whitman Association
* Walt Whitman House/Walt Whitman Association
* Walt Whitman House/Walt Whitman Association

So multiple complaints from a single source? Perhaps they objected to the use of some still image they held copyright on, since Clark’s technique was to “reanimate” dead poets through computer manipulations of photos or paintings, often with fairly realist results. I’ve only posted a couple, but Clark produced well over a hundred. Many of them can still be viewed at (and embedded from) DailyMotion, if you can put up with the ads. Here’s a Walt Whitman one to illustrate his technique (maybe one of the ones that sparked the complaint?):

It seems odd that Clark would put such a prominent copyright notice of his own on the video, since there’s no indication that he had permission to use Garrison Keilor’s audio. But what do I know?