YouTube rules tennis highlights 'out'
Must be kept as secret as Oscars clips
As YouTube cleanses itself  of unofficial Oscars footage, tennis fans report that home edited videos of match highlights are also being removed from the site. These homemade highlights, often the only way fans can see video from distant, smaller tournaments, are being taken down at the request of organisations such as Tennis Australia and the United States Tennis Association, which run two of the sport's four biggest annual events.
When Google acquired YouTube, there were widespread predictions that the service's new deep-pockets owner would be sued into the ground by a ravening pack of behemoth copyright holders intent on punishing the evil pirates who host ten-minute clips of their material. This was never likely; Google is big enough to strike licencing deals with Big Media.
Any suits that happen are more likely to come from smaller rightsholders whose unauthorisedly YouTubed video is their only asset. Google's acquisition was accompanied by licensing agreements with Sony BMG and Warner Music Group. More recently, though, Viacom demanded the removal of all violations of its copyrighted material, an estimated 100,000 clips that included MTV music videos and the crowning of Miss America 2007 when licensing talks fell through.
Copyright violations have, of course, always been an issue on YouTube, even though the system has built-in limitations that make it suboptimal for the archivist seeking a cheap source of free footage. The small screen size and relatively low resolution are the most obvious two, but in addition the service is designed only to play video live. To download anything you must find yourself a third-party hack.
About a year ago, when copyright complaints got loud enough, the service implemented a 10-minute limit on video clips posted from ordinary accounts and instituted a "Director's account" for verified professionals posting their own material and willing to indemnify the company. YouTube of course takes down copyrighted material in response to rightsholder complaints and suspends the accounts of repeat offenders.
All these prophylactic measures have served, so far, to cover the company's ass. But there is no mechanism for users to protest against unreasonable rightsholders' restrictions. The recent removals of tennis-related clips are a good illustration.
Erich (who prefers to withhold his surname) tells the story this way. Sometime last year he began compiling short video highlights from tennis matches, both from smaller tournaments and from large events such as the US Open  or last month's Australian Open .
Most of his clips, he says, even from smaller tournaments, would make it into the day's top 20 most-viewed sports list. High-profile matches, such as those from the major events or those contested by star players such as Roger Federer , Andy Roddick, or Rafael Nadal  would often reach the top ten and remain there for a week. His highlights of the retirement at last year's US Open of American great Andre Agassi not only reached number one in sports but the top ten most viewed videos across every category on YouTube. In addition, people who liked the videos posted links to his clips in forums on official player Web sites and elsewhere.
"It was," he admits, "probably unlikely that I was going to be able to sneak under their radar." Once one infringing clip is found, clicking on the user's name lists all the videos that user has ever posted.
He got his first complaint from YouTube last September, during the US Open, when the US Open's organisers, the United States Tennis Association, demanded the removal of his video clips. YouTube cited the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and issued a warning.
"I also heard from other posters who had clips removed," he says, "even just short five-second clips of a player hitting a forehand or backhand in practice." (It's worth noting that the US Open, like some other US sporting events, bans spectators from bringing in commercial video cameras and other recording devices . Some US events even ban still cameras that have interchangeable lenses.)
"Clearly," says Erich, "they were determined to wipe out any information or material that could prove tennis still exists as a sport or, God forbid, could bring in new fans."
When Tennis Australia lodged similar complaints during its flagship event, which ended on January 28, as a repeat offender Erich's account was suspended.
Neither Tennis Australia nor the USTA responded to email requesting comment.
Erich notes, by email, "It definitely seems that things have changed after Google joined the fun. It's also possible that the new corporate overlords are just being more cooperative with copyright holder complaints. YouTube had in the past been criticised for not doing enough to weed out copyright violators. Realistically speaking, with or without Google, the copyright anarchy was never going to go unnoticed for too long."
A spokesman for YouTube, however, denies that there has been any change of policy.
"Our policy regarding copyright has not changed. We don't control the content on our site. Our users post the content on YouTube – including videos, comments, and ratings. Our community guidelines and clear messaging on the site make it clear that users must own or have permission from copyright holders to post any videos.
"We take copyright issues very seriously. We prohibit users from uploading infringing material and we cooperate with copyright holders to identify and promptly remove infringing content."
This is certainly the response you'd expect from a company that does not want to be drowned in lawsuits.
Serve and volley
But does it make wider sense as a policy for the sport to pursue? Interest in tennis has been shrinking in the US (although it's expanding in Asia and holding its own in Europe) since the 1970s and 1980s, when charismatic American superstars like John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Billie Jean King, and Chris Evert drew in millions of people. Andre Agassi, who did the same job in the 1990s, retired last year. Australia currently has few top players despite a glorious history.
Even where tennis is expanding it is a minority sport, overshadowed in the US by American football, baseball, basketball, and ice hockey, and in the rest of the world by the near-universal devotion to football.
The sport's management has been slow to understand and grasp the internet. The Grand Slam websites, created by IBM, do show video highlights – but these are adamantly Microsoft Internet Explorer-only. With rare exceptions – notably the Moscow event, which has offered live streaming video for some years now – few other tournaments offer even that. It's only in the last year that the pro tours have begun offering video clips on their own sites.
Yet this is a worldwide sport that should be cultivating its next-generation audience any way it can. Hundreds of matches are played every week involving not just the stars whose names everyone knows but players who are rarely televised but are heroes in their own countries and whose greater accessibility to the public would help grow the game.
They shouldn't be pulling videos off YouTube; they should be giving Erich a job. ®