Filmmaker and critic Kevin B. Lee, of Shooting Down Pictures has been posting video essays and shorts on YouTube for three years. Until yesterday, when the site pulled all his work -- more than 40 pieces totaling over 300 minutes -- on grounds of "copyright infringement" because he included clips from the films he was discussing. This is a travesty of the principles of intellectual freedom that the Fair Use doctrine is designed to protect and encourage under US Copyright Law.
Matt Zoller Seitz also had a run-in with YouTube recently. (See his splendid Busby Berkeley reverie here.) I can't improve on the eloquent case he makes at The House Next Door, where Lee has been a regular contributor:
Can a critic argue without clips? Sure. Film criticism has largely done without external accompaniments for a century and can continue to do without them. But it's important to note that clips and still frames have been a central part of cinema studies since its inception. Anyone who's attended a film history or theory course knows how valuable they are. Clips often determine the difference between learning something and truly understanding it. They're quotes from the source text deployed to make a case. Take them away, and you're left with the critic saying, "Well, I can't show you exactly what I mean, so I'll describe it as best I can and hope you believe me."
This, in a nutshell, is the defining difference between criticism pre- and post-millennium. For the first time ever, when someone says to a critic, "Show me the evidence," the critic doesn't need to unlock a film archive vault or even haul out a DVD player to produce it. He can call it up online anytime, anywhere, for anybody.
There's also an unspoken class bias at work here, a bully mentality that chooses its targets based on who's likely to fight back and win. Consider commercial TV, which is filled with programs that routinely air copyrighted material without permission for purposes of journalism, satire or simple entertainment. "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" don't ask permission to air any of the news clips they slice and dice each night for yuks; they consider a network's onscreen logo to be acknowledgment enough, and their assumption is almost never challenged. Talk shows don't think twice about airing a rival network's news footage or clips from a popular or notorious TV program in order to spark a discussion or anchor a satirical montage....
There should be a way to distinguish between piracy-for-profit (or unauthorized, free redistribution) and creative, interpretive, critical or political work that happens to use copyrighted material. And there must be an alternative to unilateral takedowns. The issues aren't just legal, they're practical. History has demonstrated that there's no copyright protection that can't be defeated, no corporate edict that can't be subverted. And given the technological sophistication that permits digital watermarking, there ought to be a way to make sampling of any sort, authorized or not, scaled to suit the filmmakers' means, profitable for the rights holders, and as fully automated as the copyright-infringement-scouring that's currently happening all over the Internet.
Read all of Matt's piece here.
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