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Bill Streeter makes his living by producing a video blog called Lo-Fi St. Louis (www.lofistl.com) which features a couple of three- to four-minute videos on St. Louis music and culture each week. In February he shot a video called "Mac Geek Porn" about an O'Fallon, Missouri, man who turned his basement into an Apple computer museum, complete with a bar constructed entirely of vintage Apple II's. The Associated Press picked up the story in April without including any mention of Streeter's creation. And earlier this month, CNN's Web site featured a different video on the same topic. It was titled "The man who collects Apples."
As word of the basement Mac collection spread across the Web, Streeter's short was featured on various Web sites. As its popularity grew, other sites began to embed the clip. However, embedding, the practice of placing scaled-down videos on personal Web pages, meant that people were viewing the video without ever visiting Streeter's Lo-Fi St. Louis vlog.
As the "Mac Geek Porn" clip continued to appear on Web sites, blogs, Facebook pages and MySpace profiles, its view count soared but fewer and fewer sites linked back to its original source. Last week Streeter stumbled across a clip on YouTube called "Vintage Mac Collector," which also featured his original work. His credits and introduction, though, were edited out. This did not sit well with him.
"I don't have a problem reposting original content as long as it has credit for me," Streeter says. "It's the least you can do, give the original author credit. I don't mind if you copy and share it just don't be a dick about it."
Streeter's video is an example of viral videos, short clips taken from sites such as YouTube and spread across the Internet like a virus. The competition to discover such hidden video gems has increased dramatically. Web sites are hoping their latest find will draw more Web traffic and the ad revenue that comes with it. The practice, though, has sparked controversy as to who deserves credit for finding hot new videos.
Frank Stinton, creator of MeFeedia (www.mefeedia.com), a site that compiles Web videos, says it is difficult to determine who first discovers a clip. Even when it's possible to establish the creator, he says a link back to the original source is just a "best practice."
"We have something we call 'social timeline' that tracks, on a daily basis, views of video," Stinton continues. "But it's hard to figure out where the original post was and who discovered it."
Sites like MeFeedia might make YouTube and the 15,000 Web sites just like it easily searchable. The challenge, though, for aptly named Web sites like Stupid Videos (www.stupidvideos.com), is predicting what's going to be popular out of millions of hours of footage.
"It's one of those mediums with the biggest potential to pay off, but it also has the biggest potential to fall short," says Peter Rodick, an art director at Waylon Advertising in St. Louis. He has seen an increase in companies asking him to produce viral videos for marketing purposes. "Everyone assumes they can't lose, since it costs so little to produce," adds Rodick. "But so many viral videos have fallen flat on their face and only got 1,000 hits because people just weren't passing it along to their friends."
Videos that go viral are generally short and funny, the kind of material that would have been featured on America's Funniest Home Videos a decade ago. But today, Web sites that specialize in music and politics are constantly competing to find and post attention-grabbing videos on their pages.
Amy Phillips, senior news editor at music and news Web site Pitchforkmedia .com, says Pitchfork has stopped using the word "exclusive" in reference to their content. Now, it uses "premier," after learning that some material they posted had in fact been seen previously on other blogs and message boards even though Pitchfork editors were told it was available only to them.
"Those boundaries are still being kind of defined," says Phillips. "A lot of times things will get sent in to us by readers, a tip, and they say, 'Hey, look at this hilarious video.' Sometimes we try and credit [the reader], but we'll find out later they got it from another blog."
There is increasing competition to get ahold of viral political clips, with bloggers seizing the opportunity to draw exposure and readers to their pages.
When the site Grand Theft Country (www.grandtheftcountry.com) embedded the now-famous "Dick Cheney Quagmire" clip on its site wherein vice president tells a C-SPAN reporter in 1994 that invading Iraq would result in a "quagmire" readership jumped from around 500 page views per day to more than 12,000.
To maintain ownership of their work, Streeter and other video bloggers often include a credits page at the beginning of the clip and a logo in the corner of the frame, hoping to steer viewers back to their original site. But even then, as was the case with Streeter's "Mac Geek Porn," pirates often edit those elements out and repost the unidentifiable video on YouTube.
"I've always had the attitude of if you're really worrying about ownership and copyright issues," says Streeter, "you probably shouldn't be putting it on the Internet anyway."