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Amateur hour

If you really want to date yourself, admit that you remember Ted Mack's Amateur Hour. Running from 1949 to 1970, it was the first televised amateur talent competition, the granddaddy of today's reality TV. What's new about the Internet isn't that amateurs can create content people will look at but the ability to access an audience without going through an older-media gatekeeper.

But even on the Internet, user-generated content (as the kids are calling it these days) is not new: user-uploaded messages and files are how people like CompuServe made money. But that was user-originated content. Today's user-generated content on sites like YouTube includes a mass of uploaded video, audio, and text that in fact do not belong to the users but to third parties. These issues are contentious; so much so that Ian Fletcher, the CEO of he UK's Intellectual Property Office, bailed at the thought of appearing before an audience that might publish his remarks out of context on the Net.

To hear media representatives tell it at today's Amateur Hour conference, they regarded it with a pretty benign eye for quite a while.

It wasn't, said Lisa Stancati, assistant general counsel for ESPN, until Google bought YouTube that everyone got mad. "If Google is going to be making money from my content I have a serious problem with that."

Well, fair enough. But how did it get to be your content? Media companies love theoretically paying artists when they want to expand copyright. Come contract time it's a different story, as the tableful from Actors Equity knew all too well. And what about the content of the future?

Marni Pedorella, vice president of NBC Universal, notes that the site the company runs for Battlestar Galactica fans provides raw materials for users to play with. If they upload the mashed-up results, however, NBC takes a royalty-free license in perpetuity. Are older media hoping new media will become a source of what Brian Murphy is calling CGC – for "cheaply generated content". Like reality TV?

Heather Moosnick, vice president of business development for CBS Interactive, recounted CBS's moves to share its content more widely around the Net: you can watch current shows on its Web site, for example (unless you live outside the US). But, she said sadly, if people don't care about copyright – well, there might be fewer CSIs. (Threat or promise? There are three CSI shows. At least she didn't say that less "expert content" will deprive us of Cavemen.)

Because the conference was sponsored by a law school, a lot of the moderators' questions centered on things like: How do you see your risks developing? What is your liability? What about international laws?

And: what is the difference between a professional and an amateur? You might argue that it doesn't matter as long as the content is interesting, but when it comes to the shield laws that allow journalists to protect their sources the difference is important. Should every blogger – hundreds of millions of them – have the right ? Just the ones with mass audiences who make a living from running AdSense alongside their postings? None? Is a blogger with an audience of 100,000 of the most important people in American politics more or less worthy of protection than a guy writing for a local paper with a circulation of 10,000? Is a fan taking pictures of Lindsay Lohan with a cell phone subject to California's new law limiting paparazzi?

To me, the key difference between an amateur and a professional is that the professional does the job even when he doesn't feel like it.

The source of this idea is Agatha Christie, who defined the moment she became a professional writer, some ten or 15 books into her career. She was mid-divorce, and she liked neither the book nor her work on it – but she had a contract. The amateur can say, Screw the contract, I don't feel like getting up this morning. The professional makes the work arrive, even if it stinks. Unfortunately, that practical distinction is not easily describable in law.

You could define it a different way: a professional is the guy you'll miss if he goes on strike, as TV writers are about to do over residual payments for digital reuse.

Another line: a lot of large companies operate their message boards on the basis of the safe harbor protections in the DMCA, under which you're not liable as long as you take down material when notified of infringement or other legal problems. What about mixed content? There's a case pending between the Fair Housing Council and Roommates.com because the latter site gave users a questionnaire asking such roommate-compatibility questions as age, race, gender, sexual orientation… All these are questions that landlords are not allowed to ask under the Fair Housing Act. At what point is someone looking for a roommate subject to that act? Are we really going to refuse to allow people all control over who they live with?

These aren't problems that have solutions, at least yet. They're the user-generated lawsuits of the future.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).


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