Saturday, December 24, 2005

Can Google Video modify submissions?

I'm no lawyer, but I'll play one on my blog.

Imran Anwar commented on my previous post about the updated Terms of Service for Google Video. He also did an excellent post on the matter on his blog. He's got a legitimate concern about the use of the words "REFORMAT" and "MODIFY" - specifically the latter - within the new TOS that one must agree to prior to submitting video clips. While several people that actually take the time to read the TOS (overwhelmingly the minority) will have similar concerns, I don't think there's cause for alarm. Google's just covering its ass.

But Imran's got a point: at what cost creative control?

Apparently, 'perpetual beta' software is accompanied by perpetual legal terms, too. I think, admittedly naively, "REFORMAT" refers to the file conversion of a submitted clip to Flash Video, to account for possible degradation in audio/video quality from the original clip. If a submission isn't as pristine as it was prior to uploading, they're covered. This probably also proactively allows Google to perform additional conversions post mortem to allow clips to stream to mobile devices, and by other means of access not available at the moment. This additionally might give Google the leverage to insert their own promotional clips within your videos, touting Google services or playing localized video ads as teasers in exchange for hosting the video. Which, lest we forget, is free.

As for the use of "MODIFY", I'm assuming (again, without clarification) that such refers to giving Google the right to cut and/or clip a submitted video, or selectively trim off content that's inevitably going to be pornographic. People aren't supposed to be posting adult material anyway as per the TOS, but I've caught a couple already. Google's also covering itself in the unavoidable event that someone posts a clip with remarks and activities that put the company in a disparaging light. Criticism is OK, downright hating isn't.

With the TOS additions that Google Video may start allowing videos to be rented and/or puchased, they may have to perform programmatic modifications on clips to insert claim codes, or cut the video off prematurely in cases of snippets teasing longer-form productions.

Consider the profanity filters so common to chatrooms and web-based forums. Most use "[expletive]" or "****" or "BAD WORD" or other string-replacing convention to modify content posted by a user in order to keep things clean for kids or people objecting to such language. Same concept.

Imran writes:
I ask that because the quote from their new TOS actually use the word REFORMAT to basically cover the kind of changes needed to display the video but the word MODIFY is in addition to the word REFORMAT. That should worry us all. What if your video in support of DEMOCRACY is "modified" and shown to Chinese users making it sound like supporting COMMUNISM, so that Google can keep China's government happy?
I strongly doubt Google would insert harmful or influential information of a political nature into clips. Any rogue staffer that did so would surely get fired immediately.

In terms of intellectual property, anything submitted to Google becomes theirs on a certain level, so they've got the right to play with it. It's like if someone wrote negative comments about a store's clerk on a napkin and then dropped it on the floor on their way out. It becomes the store's.

I do agree with Imran that modification of any kind isn't totally kosher, but it's probably a necessary evil in the interest of keeping things clean, quality control high and the user experience a safe, enjoyable one. And if they can work it into their business model, again, in exchange for free hosting, more power to them.

Maybe it's the fact that I have (blind) faith in the social responsibility of publicly-traded companies, or perhaps I'm a bit more tolerant of this type of contractual verbiage because I work for a video production company and this type of thing is so often implied. (We reserve the right to edit material in the interest of time constraints and preserving acceptable content levels for live TV or rebroadcasts.) I may be buying into the company's "Do No Evil" mantra a little too much, but with Google being a Fortune 1000 company, to deliberately morph clips and infer messages would be a PR nightmare and subsequently stock price suicide.

The expected corporate response for people with major concerns about these clauses, as Imran acknowledges, would be to just use a paid video hosting service. Most people won't mind minor changes. Gmail was initially scrutinized for displaying ads within a member's message, but it's worked out for them. Mostly.

I'll tap a couple sources I've got inside Google and see what the deal is with this. I've got a teleconference with them after New Year's just on Google Video, so I'll bring this up. (See various suggestions I've come up with for improving Google Video here. And here. And here.)

Hi Jason, thanks for the kind words again. I think we now face a two-fold issue. These companies, like Yahoo and MS can take/usurp our rights (because we are lazy and click ACCEPT on TOS without reading) and at the same time can sell us out to China or Bush if these tyrants want to know who posted a comment or what word you searched for. So, long term, it is scary how the issues that were only seen in sci-fi-ish movies are already leading people to prison in China and soon in USA too, as Yahoo etc. sell out. (At least Google is resisting the government on that).

Remind me not to call you - as George Bush would be listening in.



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