So Google got back to Viacom this week on that $1 billion suit filed back in March, issuing Viacom an effective “Bring it on.” Google wants to bring the case to jury trial. “We are not going to let this lawsuit distract us,” Google’s attorney said. I, on the other hand, think I am going to let this lawsuit distract me, just as I let YouTube distract me when I should be paying attention to more traditional forms of entertainment.
The whole Viacom-Google thing displays a fractal symmetry that deserves extended comment and reflection. By fractal I suppose I mean that looked at from different angles, at different magnitudes, the case shows similar patterns to itself, and at the center of these patterns is the pure aesthetics of corporate power.
The symmetry begins at the level of motives. Viacom wants to stop YouTube at its business model, since that model generates income through playing material—user posted videos—YouTube gets for free. Viacom achieved its own early success through MTV, whose business model consisted of broadcasting material—record company–supplied music videos—that MTV got for free. YouTube’s revenue model, the one Viacom is suing to stop, is the son of the model MTV invented.
In October, this was before Google’s purchase, YouTube signed a revenue-sharing agreement with three major record companies. Record companies have historically griped about the devil’s deal they had with MTV, in which they turned over these expensive video productions for free, in the name of promotion. This is a better deal for them, and this is also a threat, and a motive for Viacom to stop YouTube before the record companies stop permitting MTV to play their videos.
A guy I met at a bar last month told me (on deep background) that this was the real reason behind the lawsuit. (Full disclosure: I drink.) The behemoth of Viacom is built out of a giant machine of rights clearance. Its shows, VH1’s nostalgia programming in particular, look cheaply made and disposable, but in reality they are laborious feats of permissions gathering, and overwhelmingly expensive. That money doesn’t go to its employees: the lawyers are virtually the only staff not retained on permalance basis; and as for salary, the company gained some press (but not enough) for doing its damnedest to keep the writers of the Daily Show from joining the Writers Guild. It’s the price of running the clip from Small Wonder, or the photo of Mariah Carey, or playing Dave Matthews’s Satellite in the background after a Real World housemate reveals a devastating secret, that add to the cost of shows like pork barrel to budgets. If record companies took away their free videos, which said dude in the bar (a very affable fellow though mistaken on some details) claims was already done but which I, always diligent, am still trying to verify—well, that would push the whole project past the limits of profitability. (Major labels began to receive some compensation from MTV in the late 80s, though independent record labels have still not received such concessions in the U.S. That new financial arrangement has been claimed as one impetus for MTV’s move into original programming.)
Viacom is either suing because it cannot see the image of itself in YouTube, or it is suing because it does. That’s the mysterious beauty of corporate strategy. It cannot be blamed for amnesia because that is its nature. Blaming or criticizing a corporation like Viacom for turning on its founding model would be like blaming the scorpion for stinging the frog. A corporation is structured to answer only to profit, to maximize shareholder value. It is built to contradict itself and to forget.
Comedy Central’s series South Park once explored a similar issue to the current Viacom/YouTube fight in an episode dedicated to music sharing, 2003’s “Christian Rock Hard.” Poor musicians whose songs had been downloaded were deprived of the necessities that lost income could buy: gold-plated jets, floating pools, diamond hamburgers, and new breasts for themselves or their daughters. If it sounds like I’m making those examples up, that’s because I can’t check my sources on YouTube.
So Viacom sells us content whose message directly contradicts what they are currently trying to force us to do through the courts. That level of paradox may not merit more than chin-stroking level appreciation, but there is also more to the YouTube content threat than just the copyrighted material.
Much of YouTube’s user generated material is lamented as unoriginal and predictable—a wasteland of teenagers recording themselves doing stupid stunts or confessing to webcams in their bedrooms. Now, kids have always been stupid or self-obsessed in nonproprietary ways, but these particular forms of self-expression are cast in molds built by Viacom.
In its 2000 documentary Merchants of Cool, Frontline explored the concept of the mook. One of Viacom’s most successful inventions, this young male archetype went around injuring or generally debasing himself for the amusement of his peers. This behavior has been branded and controlled by Viacom since the late nineties, so the company could easily feel that the homemade pranks that fill YouTube infringe on the properties that inspired them, their show Jackass or the new, just-conceptually-weird Scarred. Those online diaries, too, both the genuine and the Lonelygirl15 variety, hew closely to the format pioneered by the Real World’s confessional booths, which was itself the founding text of the reality genre. And all the wisecracking running commentary on the net is lifted directly from that other ubiquitous Viacom archetype, the ironic commentator, as perfected on shows like the Daily Show, I Love the What-Have-You’s and Best Week Ever.
So the details of the lawsuit might not be ironic as much as it is a painful mirror image. Other people’s content, unpaid actors: these are the hallmarks of the Viacom business plan, they are its source code. Youtube is not just stealing its clips. They are stealing its secret recipes.
Much alarm was raised when MTV chief Bob Pittman said, “we don’t just shoot for the 14 year olds, we own them.” At the time it sounded like a boast of confidence at how much power the station had in shaping teenagers’ tastes, and concerned family groups shrieked accordingly. But now it’s starting to sound like the statement was not so much about cultural intuition as it was a declaration of intellectual property. The 14-year-olds belong to Viacom, and they are willing to go to court to keep them.
As for Google, it will have its own fractal about face in good time. The corporate imperative compels it. It just needs time to mature. Being only too happy to censor search results in China is a start. The U.S. government is attempting to enforce a data retention law that would require companies like Google to save all user search history’s for its own later use. That’s going to turn out well.
Google’s motto, “Don’t be evil,” is just too Orwellian, just a little too close to the rhetoric of the American Empire during the Reagan years and the GWOT to be interpreted at face value. It’s almost Delphic—how can they possibly escape such a saying being turned around on them, in some poignant and tragic fashion? What can the term evil mean anyway, in a time where the moniker “evildoer” can be conferred on anyone who disagrees with American free-trade foreign policy? Its significance is exactly that it is our executive who has the power to decide who gets that name.
I believe it was Anderson Cooper who once said:
“Whoever has the power to repay good with good, evil with evil, and also actually repays… is called good; whoever is powerless and unable to repay is considered bad.”
And he went on further:
“But the enemy is not considered evil, he can repay. Trojan and Greek are both good in Homer. Not he that does us harm but he that is contemptible is considered bad.”
The evil, by Cooper’s standards, are the disenfranchised. It reminds me of the dichotomy raised by a Bush aide during the reelection: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” Google doesn’t want by definition to be good. It just wants to be one of history’s actors. It wants to be the decider.