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How dare you sell our film for free
Slarek | 24 March 2013

Imagine you've a product that you're trying to sell and someone offers to help market it and asks for nothing in return. How would you react? A few words of thanks, perhaps? Work with them even? If you're a big corporation not given to communicating with the hoypoloi, you may just restrict yourself to a nod of approval and a quite chuckle at the idea of enthusiastic geeks doing something for free that you'd normally to spend a small fortune on. But seriously, would you chastise them for doing it? As it turns out, if you're in the business of film distribution, it's quite possible you would.

The past couple of weeks have been a bit of an adventure for myself and my hard-working assistant editor Tim. At present the site's most prolific reviewer, he has also conducted over forty video interviews with actors and filmmakers over the past three years, ranging from brief red-carpet chats to extensive discussions that run for over half-an-hour (all of which can be accessed on our interviews page here). This is not a product of ego but the determination of a lover of cinema with questions he wants to ask about specific films and their making, questions we'd like to think you'd also be interested in hearing the answers to. Surprisingly, perhaps, given that we hardly qualify as big players, getting access to the talent has sometimes (though not always) been relatively straightforward, but the odd free drink aside, that's where the hospitality ends. I'll expand on that in a minute.

At first the interviews were stand-alone pieces and output at standard resolution rather than HD, but even these smaller video files were too large for a micro-budget operation like us to be able to host ourselves. A small hoorah for YouTube then, who allow us to post the videos on their gargantuan servers and embed them on our site, saving us a small fortune we could not afford to pay in rented server space. The only problem back then was that several of our early interviews ran over the maximum permitted length of 15 minutes. Playlists came to the rescue, allowing us to link two or more videos together and have them play automatically in sequence with only a brief pause between them. The down side of this is that we had to split the interviews into two or three pieces, much like the traditional process of splitting a feature film into reels. Then YouTube upgraded our account, allowing us to host videos of any length (as far as I know, anyone can now do this, if you're willing to trust them with your mobile phone number), which handily removed the need for Playlists. And as our internet connections have improved (they're still bloody slow on upload, but better than they were) we've been increasingly able to post the videos in 720p and even 1080p HD. Great stuff. This, for us at least, is where it all peaked.

Having initially posted the interviews without any embellishment, Tim thought it would be good if we could incorporate clips from the films under discussion into the videos, and from a video editor's viewpoint it made a lot of sense. Apart from providing a more polished introduction to the interviews themselves, the clips helped to illustrate points under discussion and cover up those moments where the camera played up or we had to cut a chunk of the interview out.

At first this wasn't a problem. Being well aware of copyright issues, we made sure that we secured clearance for any clips we used. So far, so good. After a while, however, little messages began appearing next to some of our videos on YouTube informing us that "matched third party content" had been detected. For those of you not familiar with this particular accusatory badge of shame, it's dispensed like an automatically targeted wet custard pie if an individual, studio or corporation believes you have used material that they hold the copyright to without obtaining their permission to do so. Which, in theory at least, is fair enough. Except in every single case we had obtained have permission to use the clips. In some instances they were physically passed to us by the distributor or relevant PR company.

At first I ignored the warnings, but not so long ago one of our videos was blocked from being played almost as soon as it was posted by the very people who had arranged the interview and supplied us with the clips. As we attempted to untangle the problem, we found that two of our earlier videos were also now blocked, one of them again by the distributor that had supplied us with the clips they were now slapping us soundly on the wrist us for using. With little to lose and my notoriously testy patience wearing a little thin, I acknowledged that we were aware of this third party ownership (there's a button next to the warning for that), and a short while later the videos were once again playable. Okay, then.

Then last weekend Tim uploaded a substantial interview with writer-director Eran Creevy and a new icon appeared, a small red rectangle containing a fat white exclamation that informed us that the video had been rejected by YouTube. Why? Well apparently it was too long. Eh? A quick bit of digging revealed that our unlimited length privileges had unexpectedly been withdrawn. Why? Too many matched content hits had apparently clobbered our previous good standing.

So just what is the problem here? Why are we still getting hit if the distributors have given us the okay to use the clips? Part of the problem – a substantial part, I'm guessing – is the worldwide nature of YouTube itself. While we may have secured permission from the UK distributor to use clips from a film, those film rights often lie with a different distributor outside of the UK. They see the video (or more likely hear about it from a basement office whose entire job involves scouring the internet for what they believe is unlicensed content usage), a naughty box is ticked and a complaint automatically sent. You're then given a choice: acknowledge that you don't own the copyright to the disputed material, or dispute it, which doesn't allow any real room for debate. What we really need is a third button that allows us to point out that while we don't own the copyright, our usage of the clips has been officially sanctioned. Aside from that, in the US and the UK there is a little thing embedded in copyright law called Fair Use, which allows small portions of copyrighted material to be legitimately used for a number of purposes, including commentary, criticism and news reporting.

All of which is frankly beside the point. The reason we get so wound up by all this is we're using not using the clips for our own amusement, but to help promote the very films that the complainants are trying to sell. And because I refuse to take advertising on the site, we're doing it for nothing. No, strike that – idiots that we are, we're actually paying to do it. It costs us considerable time and money in fares, materials and man hours to conduct and edit these interviews. I'm not complaining about that, but to be told off for doing so feels a little perverse.

There is, it is often said, no such thing as bad advertising (there is as it happens, but we'll let that slide for now), and in an ideal world, anyone should be able to use short clips from any film in their YouTube videos without getting their knuckles slapped. After all, even when a clip is used to take the piss out of the very film that it's borrowed from. The one in which the sequence of Tom Cruise running away from the alien war machines in Spielberg's War of the Worlds is hilariously rescored with the Benny Hill theme (you can catch it here) is a great example, as a number of those viewing the clip who have never seen the movie will immediately add it to their Must See list on the basis of the visible effects work alone.

There are, it seems to me, a couple of perfectly workable solutions to the problem of being inappropriately tagged when using film clips with interviews. YouTube themselves – or at least their understandable nervousness about being sued by huge corporations and a flock of stony-faced legal beagles – could certainly help by offering that above mentioned third response option to matched party content, allowing the accused the opportunity to enter into a dialogue with their accuser and explain their position. Better still would be if all of the distributors for a particular film were in clear and direct contact at all levels, so that if permission is granted for clip usage by one of them, the others would automatically be aware of this and acknowledge it, something that would also work perfectly well for other materials or publicity events. If they wanted to make it all official, then a central database where you can register your site and get clearance to use material would certainly work for us (the service offered by Image.net for the provision of publicity stills and logos is a good starting point). But for any distributors reading this, there's a far simpler option – before you start blocking videos or hurling out matched content complaints, at least have a look at how your clips are being used, and take on board the fact that we're not sneakily stealing your product, but enthusiastically helping you to promote it.