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Maybe you've been giving Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG ) YouTube the evil eye, calling it a blatant breaker of copyrights and wondering why the service hasn't been sued out of existence. In that case, let me show you exactly how blatant that sort of thing can be, and how far from it YouTube remains. And the bad guys might surprise you.
The usual suspects
Hello, Mygazines.com. On that site, you'll find digital copies of entire print magazines, with titles ranging from Playboy (NYSE: PLA ) and Wired to Cosmopolitan and The Economist. The publications open in a handy browsable window where each major article shows up in a very nice table of contents, and you can often click on page references in the stories (continued on page 133, for example) to keep reading the content with minimal downtime for shuffling through the pages and pages of advertising.
It is brand-name content presented in an environment that advertisers must hate (think TiVo (Nasdaq: TIVO ) forwarding through ad spots), uploaded by mostly anonymous users with no apparent consent from the copyright owners. Oh, there are some actual user contributions here, too -- mostly clipbooks pulling together, say, wedding advice or Megan Fox photoshoots from the pages of other magazines. Not exactly the equivalent of phone-cam videos of your kids playing tag, you know.
And here's the kicker: The site's terms of service simply ask that you actually bought a copy of the magazine you're uploading, not that you own the rights in any way. Now, I think that our current copyright laws and their application tend to be a bit heavy-handed, but even so I can't justify this project under "fair use." My crystal ball foreshadows massive legal actions from the likes of Mr. Hefner, Time Warner (NYSE: TWX ) , and Washington Post (NYSE: WPO ) , all of whom have unauthorized magazine issues on Mygazines. In fact, Time Warner is already thinking about taking action.
Compare and contrast to YouTube, where large sections of the user terms deal with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or how to file an infringement notice and protest such notices. That user policy is nearly twice as long as that of Mygazines, and covers a lot of ground that the upstart leaves untouched. Google may be fighting Viacom (NYSE: VIA ) through the legal system and in the court of public opinion over clips from The Colbert Report and The Daily Show, but that company does go after obvious infringers, enforces a moral code, and generally tries hard to comply with copyright law.
YouTube has partnered up with many content owners, and plenty of the copyrighted clips you see there nowadays come with official blessings. Google will share revenues with content owners, making YouTube more of a business opportunity than a piracy threat. In a letter to the British Press Gazette, an anonymous spokesman dismisses comparisons to the file-sharing days of Napster (Nasdaq: NAPS ) and claims to want a stronger publishing industry as a whole. That might sound crazy to you, and I sort of doubt the purity of the intentions, but I think these guys might actually get a healthier publishing market in the end.
As obvious and unavoidable as the legal avalanche is, that's not what I see as the ultimate Mygazines killer. The site has ties to the seemingly indestructible Pirate Bay file-sharing service and the site is registered to a "John Smith" with an address in tiny Caribbean island Anguilla. The law will have a hard time laying a finger on it, as egregious as the infractions may be.
No, the death blow will eventually come from the publishing industry itself. Magazines like Cosmo, Wired, and Playboy always looked like prime online properties, dishing out their advice, entertainment, and other well-written and popular articles through this huge series of tubes. But here we are, well into the digital age, and most of them simply haven't made the transition yet.
If Mygazines teaches Time anything, it would be how to present the print magazine in a tasty online form, easy to navigate and easy to use. Copy that model and then improve on it, inject a bit of revenue-generating advertising, and see if your readers prefer the official version with corporate backing or some fly-by-night rip-off where everything is free but nothing is guaranteed. Now let's see which publisher might be the first to get a clue so we can invest in it.