From the Colbert Report to Attributor

In a recent New York Times article, Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman sounded exasperated: “Every day we have to scour the entirety of what’s available on YouTube, so we have to look for our stuff,” and added, “It is very difficult for us and places an enormous burden on us.”

This overt frustration is not limited to Viacom, as a lot of old-media companies around the globe are aggressively pursuing legal means to protect their copyrighted content that appears prolifically at multitude of web sites.

The significant publicity surrounding the Viacom–YouTube skirmish is just the first page of a long tale, and only a tiny slice of a much bigger global problem. Unauthorized use of content — audio, video, text and images — causes the content owners and publishers billions of dollars in terms of lost opportunity. Not only they receive nothing for the illegal use of their content but also share no piece of the advertising revenues generated through the use of their content.

What can the content owners do? The vastness of the Internet and ease of copying content combined with the prolific growth of social sites creates an insurmountable challenge for content owners. The content publishers and media companies currently rely on their in-house developed technologies and a large staff to primarily manually scan the Internet to discover the misuse and violations. As a result, not only do they capture just a small portion of the unauthorized use, but, as Mr. Dauman pointed out, the enforcement to remediate the content becomes near impossible. Per the Digital Millennium Copyrights Act (DMCA), online service providers like Google, Earthlink, Feedster and others must comply with the “notice and take down” provisions when they receive a formal notice from a content owner of an unauthorized use. 

The process is equally cumbersome and manual for the OSPs Even as the content is taken down (as seen many times on YouTube), it appears right back up either at the same site or other places. This endless game creates an enormously difficult challenge for both content publishers and OSPs, and until recently, there has not been a comprehensive system to automate the whole process end-to-end. But there is now a light at the end of this long tunnel.

Companies like AudibleMagic and Attributor announced their plans to solve this very complex problem (Disclaimer: Selby is an investor in Attributor, and I’m on the board). The complexity is a combination of the necessity to change user behaviors on the web as well as the difficult technical challenges to authenticate and identify copyrighted content in all forms throughout the Internet. These challenges and complexities also open the door to a large market opportunity for those who can deliver solutions to both content owners and OSPs. Attributor is a pioneer going after this vast market opportunity by building a robust platform and service to enable publishers to manage and monetize their content in an automated fashion.

Ultimately, emerging innovative solutions like Attributor’s need to be complemented by industry-wide efforts to find new economic models to satisfy all parties involved so that the users have choice and access to the content they need and want in a meaningful way. We all learned a lot from the trials of Napster, Kazaa and BitTorrent, and hopefully will not repeat the same mistakes. Services like iTunes and Pandora showed us that a fair balance is possible and can be compelling. It appears that the content owners now have the solutions to protect themselves from misuse by others, but that should not stop them from discovering novel services and economic realities to offer users a gratifying experience.