YouTube: Where Cultural Memory and Copyright Converge

Lucas Hilderbrand. Film Quarterly. Volume 61, Issue 1. Fall 2007.

Let’s begin with a clip: William Shatner’s infamous 1986 appearance on Saturday Night Live when he told a convention of Trekkies to “get a life” during a sketch. This scene signaled a defining moment in media reflexivity and public awareness of fan cultures, as well as inspired the opening of Henry Jenkins’s 1992 book Textual Poachers. The first time I presented some of the material that follows, I used a clip of this sketch as an illustration of content uploaded to YouTube that reflects and replays pop-cultural memory. But by the time I reworked my presentation for a conference about a month later, the clip had disappeared. Perhaps something like this has happened to you, too.

YouTube has become the go-to website for finding topical and obscure streaming video clips, but everyday experiences also indicate how fleeting such access can be. Viewers and academics have quickly come to treat the site as an informal archive of television texts.Yet, as I argue in this article, even though YouTube and sites like it have expanded access to a rich spectrum of such material and suggested the potential for democratization of media memories and flows, they also introduce new ways to regulate and deny access to content under the guise of enforcing copyright protection.

Web Video

At the forefront of web video, YouTube has been called “viral,” “revolutionary,” and a “phenomenon.” Within a few short months of the streaming video website’s public launch in December 2005, tens of millions of visitors daily used the site to access television clips online and, in many cases, to post some of their own. Further marking YouTube the medium of its moment, Time magazine named ‘You” (referencing YouTube) the Person of the Year for 2006. Rather than being promoted by multi-million-dollar branding campaigns by major networks or tech firms, YouTube became popular by word of mouth—which in the Internet era means forwarded email links, blogs, and MySpace profiles. (Or, for those older than the “Me Media” generation, articles in the New York Times or elsewhere.) The videos available on YouTube include home videos and remixes, up-to-the-minute television excerpts, music videos, trailers, commercials, and highlights from television history posted by users—and increasingly by producers and the networks themselves. (For commentary on the site’s content, see the sidebar “The Clip Canon.”)

Despite all the hype surrounding the speed of YouTube’s popularity, television-computer convergence has been a long-expected prospect. In the mid-1990s, tech companies, networks, and Internet service providers were already speculating about their future merger and the resulting potential for exact target marketing. Microsoft purchased WebTV in 1996 but failed to capture a media monopoly to complement its software empire. In the intervening decade, digital developments such as DVDs, DVRs (Digital Video Recorders, such as TiVo), video-on-demand services, peer-to-peer (p2p) file-sharing networks, and iPods have contributed to the changes in how viewers receive and watch television. The swiftness with which the stakes surrounding YouTube have changed in its first year and a half demonstrate just how difficult it is to rigorously assess cultural and technological developments in their present moment. For instance, an otherwise insightful book about “the transition from network to networked TV” published as recently as 2006 completely missed the YouTube phenomenon. With the expansion of high-speed connections and growing computer memory capacities, Internet video distribution—from BitTorrent downloading to short-form streaming—has at long last become viable on a massive scale. Yet, when the promise of television online finally became palpable, it was not in the way corporations and the digirati had predicted in the 1990s. Indeed, if the histories of communications technologies have taught us anything, audiences rarely adopt and use media in the ways they were originally envisioned. YouTube, like popular p2ps before it, was developed by a couple of young guys who wrote the basic programming code and millions of home viewers who developed its uses.

YouTube and similar sites offer new and remediating relationships to texts that indicate changes and acceleration of spectatorial consumption. YouTube ‘s success has been attributed in large part to its user-friendliness. Users do not need to log-in in order to view clips, and videos start streaming as soon as the webpage loads, so there is no need to worry about software compatibility, downloading files, or even clicking the “play” button. On the interface, videos appear with a scrollable sidebar of other videos that search results have concluded are of related interest, so users can click through from one clip to another without doing multiple searches. This mode of hyperlinking effectively replicates channel-surfing and introduces non-narrative seriality to the viewing experience. Frequently, as well, searches for an iconic or controversial moment of television will yield multiple clips of the same content, with minor variations in image quality, running time, titling, keywords, or spellings. Deciding which clip among the batch to view may depend upon clues such as the thumbnail image or running time (to get the most complete or, contrarily, the most efficient clip) or simply the rules of peer-review popularity (users give clips star ratings, and the number of times each clip has been viewed is also tracked for users’ ready reference). Beyond its ease of use, however, its vast collection seems to be the primary draw.

YouTube has contributed to a culture of the clip. The specific moments a viewer wants to see can now be searched and accessed without the hassles of watching live broadcasts, making recordings, or waiting through exposition and commercial breaks. In the process, it fosters a new temporality of immediate gratification for audiences. As soon as the red bar across the bottom of the playback frame indicates how much of the streaming video is ready to view, users can actually drag the cursor to scan ahead to arrive at the moment they seek even quicker. Suddenly, three minutes can seem like a life-sucking eternity, and I, for one, am prone to skipping ahead or moving on before a clip finishes if it is the least bit tedious.

Although I am making a claim for the site’s centrality in accessing historical clips, instantaneity is one of its primary virtues. Users post television clips almost as soon at they have been broadcast, which allows viewers who missed a politician’s faux pas or bits of incisive satire to see the relevant material in time to participate in water-cooler conversations. Of course, rights owners can and do insist that such popular clips be taken down almost as quickly. It has become fairly common for blog readers to click through an embedded clip from the previous night’s television broadcast, only to find that the footage has been taken off-line in the few hours that elapsed between the post and the reader’s attempted playback. This has become so common that bloggers even signal the likelihood of this outcome, by suggesting readers click through while they can. Even newsworthy public events are not immune. Perhaps the most publicized and outrageous single take-down to date came when public affairs network C-SPAN ordered the removal of Stephen Colbert’s tongue-in-cheek speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in May 2006, which had been watched 2.7 million times within forty-eight hours on YouTube and which clearly satirized the state of political journalism. This viewership statistic suggests that more viewers saw the speech on YouTube than during its original transmission, and that, as outrageous as it seems, even official governmental events can be subject to restrictive copyright claims. On the flip side, the site has also been used as a vehicle for grassroots alternative media to expose political gaffes, corporate exploitation, police violence, or the realities of the battlefront in Iraq. Once publicized on YouTube, these events and issues at times get taken up in the mainstream press. In many cases, this feeds the greater good, though at other times a few seconds of video can cause such a scandal that they may ruin a campaign or damage an entire political career. And, rather than diversifying what audiences see, topical viral videos (viral in the sense of epidemic) reinforce the cultural dominance of specific media clips.

The high viewership of short-lived clips—such as those mentioned in blogs or even reported in the traditional press—reintroduce the dialectic of ubiquity and ephemerality that has, historically, been the model of much of popular culture, especially broadcasting. The intervention of home video recording opened up the possibility for home audiences to catch up on live broadcasts that they may have missed or of vintage moments they wish to re-experience. Videotape induced audience expectations for access—whether for home video releases of theatrical feature films approximately six months after their debuts or for film classics, video art, or television shows that someone, somewhere must have recorded. The Internet, Google, and YouTube have accelerated and exaggerated these expectations for availability. But YouTube reminds audiences that such content, once in their grasp, can still be temporary. The initial novelty and glee at finding an unexpected clip soon gives way to frustration and disbelief when searches for something else come up matchless—or, increasingly, when a desired clip has been de-activated for copyright violation. Perhaps more than at any time before, audiences and users seem to reject the content industry’s proprietary claims, complaining when a video goes offline or even reposting new versions of formerly disabled clips. Expectations for access have developed into a sense of access entitlement.

Despite many unrealized promises for digital media in the past decade or so, a surprising number of digital technology advocates and scholars remain celebratory in their rhetoric that technology has profoundly changed our culture, and continue to claim that in the near future all content will be digital, interactive, and shared. As a reporter for Wired magazine asserted, “Without being overly simplistic or melodramatic, the state of the Old Commercial Broadcasting Model can be summarized like this: a spiraling vortex of ruin.” I am far more skeptical. For mass audiences, broadcast, cable, and satellite television still dominate (not least because of class issues such as the digital divide—that is, uneven access to technology—or even the bourgeois pleasures of narrative structures and slick production values), and network content will continue to feed these streams. And I suspect that for many audiences, network content—new or old—still drives users to YouTube, and amateur content is discovered along the way, through the suggested links, alternate search results, or forwarded emails.

Although some cultural critics have predicted that YouTube will displace the established corporate media, YouTube ‘s popularity relies at least in part upon recirculated selections of mainstream media. As has been historically apparent with entertainment technologies, initial novelty often gives way to familiar content. Convergence usually means content redundancy across platforms, and YouTube perhaps relies more on mainstream media for source material than it threatens to displace it. Given this situation, the conflict becomes not only about what media audiences watch, but who can control and profit from it.

Cultural Memory

YouTube has given renewed public lives to thousands or even millions of “now- classic” moments from television, and offers access to a rich spectrum of important footage of history-shaping events and of otherwise unavailable or obscure nuggets of popular culture. Available clips range from CNN coverage of the Challenger space shuttle explosion (1986) to footage of Los Angeles police beating Rodney King (1991), from the Disney-animated The Story of Menstruation (1946) to Crispin Glover playing up his eccentricities on Late Night with David Letterman (1987). In cases such as commercials and talk-show highlights, significant but small-scale ephemera has historically been the hardest content for fans or even historians to track down and re-experience. This Internet library has fed scholarly as well as nostalgic uses.

Culled from users’ personal collections of recordings and productions, the site’s videos and its search engine offer some evidence of what from television’s past now constitutes our cultural memory—a concept that suggests the idiosyncratic ways that personal experience, popular culture, and historical narratives intersect. So much of our personal and social memories are comprised of televised news coverage, commercials, or scenes in bad sit-coms. YouTube allows users to seek out the media texts that have shaped them and that would otherwise be forgotten in “objective” histories. Like memory (cultural or personal), YouTube is dynamic. It is an ever-changing clutter of stuff from the user’s past, some of which disappears and some of which remains overlooked, while new material is constantly being accrued and new associations or (literally, hypertext) links are being made. The images are often hazy but may suffice to induce recall or to fill in where we could only previously imagine how things were from written or word-of-mouth accounts. One of the dangers of seeing once-formative content on YouTube is being underwhelmed in the present; such disillusioning effects are probably only enhanced by the low resolution of the video stream. But these disappointments of history alternate with delightful discoveries.

YouTube introduces a new model of media access and amateur historiography that, while the images are imperfect and the links are impermanent, nonetheless realizes much of the Internet’s potential to circulate rare, ephemeral, and elusive texts. As documents, the low-resolution postings to YouTube fall far short of archival preservation, and excerpting changes the flow and format of broad/cable-cast content. Archivists and librarians have criticized the site not only for circulating low-resolution copies of unauthorized content but also for skewing general perceptions that sites such as YouTube may render traditional archives irrelevant and introduce unrealistic demands for access.

YouTube functions both as a portal of cultural memory and as a concept, but it does not operate as an archive in the proper sense of the word. Perceptions of its popularity have had a snowball effect on YouTube’s prevalence for both uploads and streaming, thus making it the de facto repository for video clips—at least until they are deactivated. YouTube is only the most famous of a proliferation of web video sites, but as the best-known, it has become a centralized repository and probably the first place users search for content. It has not only become the default site, but it is also becoming the generic term for conversational references to web video clips and sharing—much the way Barbie, Xerox, Kleenex, or Coke can be used to describe a type of product beyond a specific brand name.

Memory media are mediated—and look it, as old video clips seem to exhibit a surface haze of worn old video. Streaming clips on YouTube reflect the aesthetics of access; reduced resolution becomes a trade-off for quick and easy use—an issue that has recurred across various technologies, from photocopies to VHS tapes to MP3s. In a word, YouTube clips look and sound terrible. Off-air recordings get compressed, and source webcams and camera-phone images look blocky and jerky from the moment of creation; delays in streaming exacerbate the effects of both. Videos that may look acceptable in miniature reveal low resolution if blown up to full-screen. And digitization of analog source recordings take color saturation down a few notches while introducing pixelation. The YouTube recordings further remediate content and inscribe its sources onto the recordings. The homemade status of many television clips is marked by station identification logos in the corner of the frame and, in the cases of older recordings, VHS artifacts such as rainbows of discoloration and signal drop-out. Such artifacts and alterations indexically signal the videos’ sources and demonstrate bootleg aesthetics. Clips that circulate beyond YouTube, as embedded videos on other websites, feature branded YouTube watermarks. The identities of uploaders and comment posters are also inscribed on the interface, so that there is some record of where the footage came from and where it has gone.

If YouTube can be said to facilitate communication, it is in ways that emphasize video over epistolary exchange. Friends, family, and co-workers can easily email hotlinks for already-posted videos of cute critters or comical blasts from the past to each other, and typically do so with minimal if any written explanations; forwarding YouTube videos can sustain email contact between people with pre-established relationships without the effort of writing personal narratives. In terms of forging new connections, two prevalent types of user-generated posts have emerged: first, talking-head webcam videos of users spouting off extemporaneous rants in response to the clips they watch and, second, more elaborate parodies of popular videos. Despite designated spaces on the YouTube interface for descriptions about videos and for feedback from viewers, the potential for written communication via the site seems to be mostly unrealized. Browsing the posted user comments reveals a lot of plugs for posters’ own clips, spam, chain letters, and racist or homophobic flames (insults). When users do make comments, they are typically brief and not terribly enlightening, along the lines of, “LOL very funny!!!!” Written dialogue remains the domain of blogs and chat rooms.

As a forum for self-syndication and post-broadcast networking, YouTube has elicited considerable discourses of “community” and “sharing.” Co-founder Chad Hurley has commented, “People like to share experiences … We started it with the idea of solving a problem—how to share video online with your friends.” A market analyst was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “YouTube figured out what Google and Yahoo and Microsoft and all the others in the marketplace didn’t,” she said, “It’s not about the video. It’s about creating a community around the video.” As its slogan “Broadcast Yourself” suggests, YouTube fosters exhibitionistic and narcissistic amateur video streams; it is tempting to suggest that user-generated content on YouTube is more about promoting oneself than about exchanging ideas with others. Clips that excerpt or rework texts from TV’s past, in contrast, indicate a desire to reclaim a shared cultural memory. And, of course, these are the clips most at risk of being taken off-line by their rights owners.


Copyright has been at the center of public attention to YouTube, and it sets the terms on which much of personal (and scholarly) access to media texts will be available. It is also the major question that has overshadowed YouTube’s success. How long will YouTube survive in an age of aggressive anti-piracy campaigns and lawsuits—content industry movements that have largely been supported by Congress and the courts? Google purchased YouTube for $1.6 billion in October 2006, making it worth suing. Videos may easily be found through keyword searches on the site or simply through a general web search on Google. In this sense, its design as a search engine matched Google’s business model and allowed for integration with Google’s own fledgling video databases when the company acquired YouTube.

With all the attention YouTube has received as the central portal of web video clips, it had seemed inevitable that some media conglomerate or other would sue YouTube for copyright infringement. If anything, it actually took longer than one might have expected. In March 2007, Viacom sued YouTube and Google for $1 billion. The lawsuit followed Viacom’s failed attempts to negotiate a cooperative deal (negotiations reportedly continue concurrent with litigation) and hundreds of thousands of requests for YouTube to disable clips of Viacom properties The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and South Park. Advocates of digital content sharing and remixing have pointed out the irony that Stephen Colbert repeatedly referenced and encouraged YouTube clips and remixes on his show. Whether or not Viacom sees some financial reward for its litigation, this is the type of case that seems bound for the Supreme Court, to follow in the wake of its major precedents: Sony v. Universal (1984, known colloquially as “the Betamax case”) and MGM v. Grokster (2005, which shut down Kazaa-like P2P network Grokster for enabling unauthorized music sharing).

Copyright law was developed to stimulate publication of new works for the edification of culture. At base, copyright allows rights owners the right of publication and, in exchange for offering cultural works for public consumption, of profiting from such publication. This form of legal regulation was intended to foster a vibrant and continuing stream of new cultural works, though legislation and court rulings have increasingly favored rights owners over their audiences of late. Numerous copyright scholars have suggested that such shifts have betrayed the law’s original purpose. For analog media, content owners not only financially benefit from publication, but they also have considerable control in deciding how content will enter the marketplace.

The same basic issues are at stake, if complicated, in the era of digital networks when peer-sharing and video streaming are more or less indistinguishable from publication. In many cases, rights owners request to have streaming YouTube videos disabled not necessarily because they are competing with owners’ own residual marketing but because they want to maintain some kind of control over what is publicly accessible and how it is distributed. Digital technologies and policies have facilitated rapid and more drastic methods of disabling the documents that feed cultural memories and enable scholarship. Hardware is now regularly engineered to prevent copying and to disable unauthorized uses, and the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) forbids hacking encryption technologies and allows for offended parties to demand that online content be taken off-line without due process to prove infringement. As Lawrence Lessig has suggested, in such situations the layers of “code”—the hardware, the software, and the content—are typically all owned or controlled by corporations with vested interests in regulating them.

Although it should perhaps go without saying, copyright should concern anyone interested in film and media because it has long been the primary legal means of regulating access to texts. When access is restricted or forbidden, not only do viewers lose out, but textual scholars can be severely inhibited as well when key texts simply are not available to be studied or taught. I would go so far as to suggest that YouTube has had a major impact on how television history can be taught by opening up access to a wealth of clips that professors may have longed for but been unable to locate; the site is incredibly useful for reference, just as the Internet Movie Database and Wikipedia—despite (overblown) criticisms of their accuracy—conveniently fill in such information as credits, dates, and historical events. Furthermore, students can make curriculum peer-produced by forwarding relevant links to their instructors and classmates.

To be clear, I am suggesting that YouTube does not promote willy-nilly piracy but rather enables access to culturally significant texts that would otherwise be elusive and the ability to repurpose videos in the creation of new derivative works. In other words, the site and its users (and I) advocate for what copyright is supposed to do. Furthermore, litigation-whether based upon a legitimate legal claim or merely a scare tactic and form of economic intimidation—can have inhibiting effects far more sweeping than the specific rule of law. Copyright matters, and YouTube has become one of the most prominent and popular sites where what’s actually legal law is being contested and potentially curtailed.

In terms of copyright, the user-uploaded content streamed via YouTube falls into roughly three categories: copied, appropriative, and original. The copied texts derive primarily from users’ television recordings, clipped into bite-sized portions without intended alteration of the source material other than excerpting. This is perhaps the most sought-after category, especially for catching up with topical TV moments or nostalgic clips. Appropriated clips often include copyrighted music or footage used in the service of new derivative works; such uses range from amateur music videos as users dance and lip-synch to popular songs in their bedrooms, to complex fan, slash or culturejamming re-edits of footage. Original content would mean any video footage that does not incorporate previously copyrighted works, such as home movies, video diaries, and small-scale productions. There are also innumerable versions, imitations, and parodies of both corporate and amateur content. AU three categories are prevalent, including original content, which helps bolster the claim that the site can and is used for substantial non-infringing uses. In many cases, what appears to be the same clip has been uploaded by different users, thus blurring distinctions between authorship, ownership, and distribution rights.

In the wake of court rulings against the P2Ps Napster and Grokster, the copyright crisis has haunted otherwise celebratory predictions of the website. In the Betamax case, which legalized home recording with VCRs, the Supreme Court came to three significant conclusions: first, that home video recorders must be allowed because of their potential for noninfringing uses; second, that the dominant uses of the machines were for timeshifting (recording television programs off air for belated viewing), which the Supreme Court considered fair use; and third, that Sony could not be held liable for its customers’ misuses of the machines. The court saw fit to expand the definition of fair use—reproduction of copyrighted content for educational uses—to include personal consumptive uses as a way to broaden the potential audiences for television programming and serve a broader public interest. This ruling expanded the domain of fair use beyond orthodox interpretations, thus setting a curious but progressive precedent. The judges were clearly aware that some home tapers did, in fact, elide or fast-forward through commercials when time-shifting, and that some video collectors built home libraries of tapes. But for the court, the legitimate and potentially beneficial uses of the technology outweighed such violations.

Although YouTube may superficially resemble the peer-to-peer networks as a means of unauthorized content redistribution, I suggest that all of the judicial reasons that ultimately protected VCRs can and should reasonably apply to YouTube. YouTube cannot be completely shut down due to the indisputable volume of material that in no way infringes copyright and that can be argued to reflect the experiences and ideas of a generation and possibly even a whole cultural moment. The content industry’s interests in the site may suffice to maintain its architecture—and, by extension, to sustain a space for amateur and bootleg media flows. Even if YouTube itself implodes, the technology for video sharing remains available, and viewer desire seems sufficient to drive video sharing to alternative venues.

The failure of the Betamax precedent to save the P2Ps should not be seen to limit its viability for YouTube. Judicial perceptions that Napster and Grokster did not have significant non-infringing uses and that the network managers could have intervened to disable infringing content were central to their undoing. Distinguishing YouTube from these peer-to-peer networks, users do not download the video files to their own computers but instead watch them as streaming Flash files and only redistribute them as emailed or embedded links. When the copyright question arises, YouTube representatives have cited the DMCA’s safe harbor provision for Internet service providers, which shields companies that provide technical infrastructure from liability for users’ infringements.

Further distinguishing YouTube from these peer-to-peer networks, YouTube regulates uses of the site. At the time of the Google purchase, YouTube was portrayed as a “good corporate citizen,” one that may actually serve the content industry’s interests. YouTube has demonstrated such self-regulations as disabling clips that have been the subject of take-down requests from copyright owners in compliance with the DMCA or that have been deemed obscene by users. The site’s inability—or refusal, depending on one’s point of view—to stringently and preemptively monitor copyright content has lead to criticism that it willingly hosts infringing content to boost its bottom line. Meanwhile, YouTube ‘s relatively stringent policies have spawned a proliferation of knock-off sites that use similar technologies and interfaces to provide access to such illicit content. This trend reflects a pre-existing pattern: the rise of alternative peer-to-peer services when popular ones face legal trouble. In fact, killing off YouTube may do more damage to the content industry than good, if doing so eliminates the industry-friendly site.

In contrast to Viacom, some record labels, studios, and networks use YouTube as a promotional platform by uploading previews and pilots through branded “channels” or through paid placement on the website’s front page. A handful, including Viacom-owned CBS, have even struck licensing or small-stake ownership agreements with the site. For a time, it seemed that industry licensing agreements and the Google purchase might have signaled a decisive shift in the content industry’s war against so-called “piracy” and ensured the site’s survival. YouTube has popularized online video viewing generally and very likely driven traffic to other sites, including the networks’ own. Such mainstreaming of consumption patterns and collaboration with the entertainment industry invariably entails some compromises, but YouTube might have been part of achieving an access equilibrium—and maybe it still will be. Maybe the site has introduced a new paradigm for online digital video sharing that builds upon the Betamax decision’s protections in a way that can be reconciled with the DMCA, but to negotiate these seemingly opposed policies, it must do so in ways as complex, even imaginative, as both the Betamax landmark decision and the digital copyright laws. If YouTube and online video streaming continue to be embraced by the industry, a court ruling may find a way within copyright to ensure the site’s survival as a way to protect commerce —just as it did for VCRs.

In a technological, legal, and business sphere that has so far undone most Utopian predictions about new media, my initial optimism about YouTube has given way to ambivalence. The site may not be a perfect or perpetual way to preserve content, but it has incredibly expanded access to media content. Ultimately a commercial endeavor, the site is not—and probably never has been—inherently Utopian or radical. Whatever YouTube ‘s future, its meteoric rise to popularity and its role at the center of speculation about the near future of video technology make it historically significant. It should also alert media scholars and audiences to the ways that copyright can regulate video access and, by extension, erase media memory.