For an observer from afar, there were three ways to experience the horrible 9.0-magnitude underwater earthquake and resulting tsunamis that wrought biblical destruction just after Christmas in Southeast Asia. First, you could read accounts in the newspaper or online, or you could hear them on the radio. Second, you might see still photographs from the scene. Third was the gripping amateur video shot by locals and tourists.
While the photography has been mind-numbing and startling, the video has provided the most gripping views of what happened as it happened, with idyllic beach scenes turning topsy-turvy, chaotic and worse. And these videos traveled through e-mails, Weblogs, news sites, cable news outlets and beyond, helping raise awareness of just how horrible the events were, thereby bringing in more donations for relief, also largely online.
The only downside was that independent blogs that hosted the videos, such as Jordan Golson’s Cheese and Crackers and Andy Baio’s Waxy.org, were soon inundated with traffic, sticking them with large bandwidth bills and slowing video distribution. New England Cable News’ Steve Safran made a desperate plea for help on the Lost Remote blog, and soon the new Media Bloggers Association (MBA) took action, launching the Tsunami Video Hosting Initiative.
Blogger Robert Cox, who founded the MBA, quickly matched up bloggers who needed bandwidth with hosting companies such as Zubr Communications and Mirror Image, with additional hosting from the Internet Archive and washingtonpost.com. All the bandwidth was donated, and the bloggers were soon able to promote the video without reservation.
“We’re all at the company committed to doing the right thing to help people,” said Martin Hayward, marketing director at Mirror Image. “That’s all this comes down to. We have the excess capacity to do it. We were absolutely shocked when any of our competitors said no to this. We said yes immediately.”
Alex Yuriev, chief technology officer at Zubr Communications, says that video traffic can be very expensive to host, despite sales pitches by hosting companies saying that bandwidth is cheap.
“Most of these customers [bloggers] who have no idea how expensive video hosting can be are shocked to find they are getting a $10,000 data transfer bill on their $20 a month hosting account,” Yuriev told me via e-mail. “What we expected as the interest in tsunami video skyrocketed was that those small sites who had uploaded some video were going to ‘blow up’ pretty darn quick — and they did. Next went the mirror sites…All of a sudden it was getting pretty hard to see the video.”
Because the demand has slowed considerably since the days right after the tsunamis, the donors haven’t had trouble keeping up with demand. But Cox still estimates that the initiative has served more than 1.2 million streams of 750 terabytes of data. Mirror Image estimates that its bandwidth would normally cost about 50 cents for each 10 minutes of high-resolution video served — a rate that will probably add up to more than $1 million in bandwidth used by the end of January.
Alliance between bloggers, MSM
Beyond the generous donations from hosting companies, the Tsunami Video Hosting Initiative also broke new ground by brokering a deal between washingtonpost.com and bloggers who needed bandwidth. Tom Kennedy, managing editor of multimedia at washingtonpost.com, told me the alliance makes sense for all involved.
“I think it’s important for mainstream media companies to figure out a way to work cooperatively with bloggers, and I think it’s in our interests to do that,” Kennedy said. “Unfortunately we can’t turn off all the ads [that run with the videos], so what we’ve done is to make as many of the ads as possible for relief efforts. We’re not in it to make money, but we want to defray costs for folks and get some powerful stuff seen.”
Unlike the other hosting companies, the washingtonpost.com was more concerned about verifying the authenticity of the videos and making sure the original shooter had given permission for the bloggers to show the video. So far, no amateur video shooters have tried to stop bloggers from showing their video, though many have sold their footage to TV news outlets.
Kennedy notes that there have already been hoax photos of the tsunami that have circulated, what he calls “the cruelest kind of rubbish” in light of the tragedy happening in so many countries.
“The challenge is vetting the authenticity of [the videos], and it’s really important to authenticate them as well as find out the full story with enough context so people understand what they’re looking at,” Kennedy said. “It requires that you go back to the original source of the material. … It becomes a resource question as to whether you can easily do it. And obviously the blogging community, if they can help us do it, then it makes the collaboration more attractive.”
Initially, one blog, Cheese and Crackers, was running the tsunami videos via bandwidth from washingtonpost.com, and eventually the big media site plans to link to the videos — with credits — from its own site.
Finding entertainment value
Not everyone online sees the tsunami videos as hard news. The short-form entertainment site iFilm includes a handful of tsunami videos in its Viral Video section, right alongside clips of racy European TV advertisements and a video of kayakers being smacked by a killer whale. And just like the average e-mailer or blogger, iFilm makes very little effort to credit or compensate the video shooter.
iFilm CEO Blair Harrison told me that the Internet moves too fast to get the official rights to all the video he distributes to the iFilm Network.
“It would not be viable for iFilm to have written contracts for every clip on the site, because we put up dozens and dozens of clips per day,” Harrison said. “So typically we go to considerable lengths to make sure that everyone who should be aware that we have the content is, but we certainly don’t have inked contracts for every piece of content we have any more than any television station does.”
Instead, iFilm offers up clips as promotion for filmmakers, film studios or videogame companies, and simply takes down video when the owner complains. In his three-plus years at iFilm, Harrison estimates they’ve only had to take down three clips. One of those was when Playboy wrote a letter complaining about video taken by guys who had broken into a party at the Playboy Mansion.
Harrison says iFilm has been profitable since late 2003, and it’s no wonder: The company doesn’t pay a cent for the video that it hosts and sells ads around. As for putting ads along with tsunami videos, Harrison points out that TV stations still run advertising when reporting on horrifying events around the globe.
iFilm has its sights set on mobile platforms, where short-form videos would make sense as next-generation cell phones become audio- and video-friendly. So perhaps at some future time, an on-the-scene amateur might shoot something right on her videophone and forward the clip on to hundreds of thousands of others with videophones, just as SMS messages spread after the tsunamis.
Distribution without a business model?
So far, the spread of amateur news video has depended on the donations from hosting companies and the interest of bloggers. But could this be the precursor to a wide alliance that helps distribute similar citizen video in the future? So far, the economics don’t work.
iFilm’s Harrison says that paying the content creator would “break our model” and doesn’t believe micropayments or revenue sharing would be worth the hassle. MBA’s Cox says his association has no interest in getting involved in compensating content creators or providing such a service. However, Cox said this experience has shown the potential for a brokered system to help bloggers serve popular video without being hit with $15,000 data transfer bills.
“If video blogging is going to take off there has to be a way for v-loggers to rapidly acquire large quantities of bandwidth for short periods of time, and a content-broker system like we used may be a terrific way to solve what I expect will become a very real problem,” Cox said via e-mail.
Cox admitted that he didn’t have the express permission from original video shooters with 80 percent of the video he was hosting. The MBA’s new counsel, Ronald Coleman, was not too thrilled about that. Coleman is the managing member of Coleman Law Firm in New York and New Jersey, and has extensive experience in trademark and copyright law on the Internet.
Coleman told me that if the shooter has the copyright for their video, they could indeed sue bloggers or iFilm even if the sites weren’t placing ads around the videos or making money off them directly. While few video shooters would want to start lawsuits to make money from such a tragedy, future shooters might well consider their options in less tragic circumstances. Coleman thinks the Tsunami Video Hosting Initiative is at least hedging its risk by acting collectively.
“Keep in mind that these videos have real commercial value that is absolutely undermined by widespread promulgation on the Net,” Coleman said via e-mail. “It’s not for nothing that they’re protected by copyright. There is no non-profit or ‘hobby’ exception to the copyright laws. Attorneys’ fees and costs could even be available to the copyright holder, if he registered his copyright with the Library of Congress — not likely but not impossible. I think linking to some other shmoe is the ticket here.”
Still, the MBA’s hosting initiative is a tantalizing prospect for distributing future citizen video. Imagine a site such as OurMedia.org becoming the place for citizens to upload their videos, along with granting Creative Commons rights to the work. Then bloggers, mainstream media sites and hosting companies could use that clearinghouse as a place to pick and choose what they’d like to show and host.
“The ideal scenario would be to do some collaborative development that would make the submission of the videos easier and would begin to get the amateurs used to the idea of supplying enough basic metadata and contact information as a part of what they’re uploading,” washingtonpost.com’s Kennedy said. “That all becomes easier for us to source. It’s not foolproof, but it would be a good place to start.”