YouTube Finds a Convert Among Japan's Content Owners

Posted by: Kenji Hall on January 25, 2008

Can Google resolve the standoff with content owners in Japan over copyright issues on YouTube that’s dragged on for nearly a year? The short answer is, Google still has some convincing to do. That’s the message I took away from a half-hour chat today with David Eun, vice president of content partnerships for the Internet search company, in Tokyo.

Eun, sounds a more optimistic note than me, albeit only marginally so. His version goes like this: The consortium of Japanese broadcasters, film and animation studios, music recording labels and other content owners have finally begun to see that Google and YouTube aren’t just baddies trying to steal business. That’s progress, and it’s taken regular meetings to get the point across. Here’s Eun, who was formerly at Time Warner working on broadband content and digital distribution:

I don’t have anything to announce right now. What I would say is that there’s a great amount of mutual understanding and respect now. I would not necessarily say that was the case last year. I think their view of YouTube was very, very different and very negative, frankly…There’s been a lot of education and relationship building.

If it seems like negotiations are moving at a torturously glacial pace, well, that’s one way of looking at it. In fact, one reason Eun flew to Tokyo was to do more face time with content owners who think Google should remove any of their videos that get uploaded to YouTube (here are their demands).

But he was also here to trumpet a deal with Kadokawa Group Holdings that gives Japanese company greater control over how its content appears on YouTube. If Kadokawa becomes a reference for other JASRAC [Japanese Society for Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers] members, companies then great,” says Google’s Eun. Are any other Japanese content owners out there listening?

You may not have heard of Kadokawa but many anime fans have. Two of the company's high-profile properties: renowned film director Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Rashomon and the teeny-bop TV anime (cartoon) The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi (check out this review). The anime, which first aired in Japan two years ago, is the one that’s attracted more attention. Why? YouTube videos, mainly of fans imitating the dance moves from the intro to The Melancholy episodes. (Picture doe-eyed schoolgirls in short skirts and sailor tops and schoolboys in the back hopping around to synthesized music and you get a feel for the Hare Hare Yukai jiggle. Here’s a taste.)

Kadokawa execs acknowledge that the YouTube videos gave DVD sales in the U.S. a jolt. “Haruhi’s success—-it’s because of YouTube,” says Tadashi Fukuda, president of Kadokawa Digix. Google's Eun praises Kadokawa for being "progressive." Kadokawa CEO Tsuguhiko Kadokawa "has said publicly he thinks the copyright laws haven’t kept pace with technology and users and that’s amazing for someone of that import to state something that's borderline controversial," says Eun.

I remember stumbling onto this over a year ago and getting hooked watching all the fans doing their own renditions at home or on the streets of Akihabara, Tokyo’s gadget central. Apparently, Kadokawa wanted to work with Google to repeat The Melancholy’s success. But the company also asked that a warning against illegally uploading copyrighted materials appear in Japanese. "A lot of people honestly don’t know" what's illegal, says Eun.

In recent months, Google has delivered a beta version of a video-image recognition technology that will help Kadokawa check for its copyrighted materials on YouTube. Think of fingerprinting, but for videos.

Eun didn't get into specifics, saying he’s no computer programmer. But he says the technology can comb through the millions of videos on YouTube and pick out matches even when it’s not “a perfectly clean pristine video.” “If someone were to video tape with a camcorder a television or go into a theater--those are two not unlikely ways for video to be uploaded,” says Eun. “You’d want to test the ability to detect a match. And what I’m telling you is that the initial results have been pretty encouraging.”

When a video is flagged, Kadokawa will have three options. Leave the videos alone and post ads alongside the videos that it owns a copyright for; receive stats on the number of playbacks for all videos that match a particular TV program or movie; or remove the content from YouTube. It’s all about giving Kadokawa more control over tracking its own content on the Net so the company can profit off a viral marketing tool like YouTube. “We have the power to choose,” says Fukuda. “It’s not that we’re asking them to take everything down.” Seems like a good lesson for other content owners to consider.

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Bloomberg Businessweek’s team of Asia reporters brings you the latest insights on business, politics, technology and culture from some of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing economies.

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