The Uncontrolled Use of Ustream.TV

On: October 12, 2008
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About Stephan Barmentloo
My name is Stephan Barmentloo. I hold bachelor degree in Business Information Systems and a BA degree in Media and Culture. I'm a student of the New Media MA at the University of Amsterdam.


The Ustream.TV service was founded in the summer of 2006 by John Ham, Brad Hunstable, and Dr. Gyula Feher as way to help soldiers stationed overseas to connect more efficiently with their families. Instead of more traditional ways of connecting with people at home, for instance by telephone or video conferencing, this service allows people to broadcast to a global audience. The viewers can interact with each other and with the broadcaster through an embedded chat window or by broadcasting a video themselves. This practice is also known as ‘lifecasting’.

Ustream.TV and the social network site definition
The Ustream.TV service can be considered as a social network site (SNS) according to the definition of Danah Boyd and Nicole Ellison. People can create a personal profile, manage a list of users with whom they share a connection, and view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others. Lifecasting and connecting with friends and family through Ustream.TV can be seen as a vivid example of the usage of SNSs as a tool to reinforce already existing social relations. Boyd and Ellison argue that pursuing new social relationships through a SNS is only secondary to the aforementioned practice.

The Ustream.TV service isn’t used exclusively for the practice of lifecasting though. It is being used more and more for broadcasting political debates, speeches, talk shows, showcases, conferences, sporting events, and interactive games. These channels seem to be in the majority now compared to the channels dedicated to lifecasting ones private life. We can argue that these channels are more centered around specific interests than around people, like the founders once envisioned the main purpose of Ustream.TV. This current use of Ustream.TV as a SNS is quite contradictory to the shift in the organization of online communities that is indicated by Boyd and Ellison. They hold the contention that SNSs are primarily organized around people and not around interests. In my opinion this is a weak observation of the difference between more traditional forms of online communities and SNSs. The current use of Ustream.TV shows us that it is perfectly possible to operate a SNS that is primarily organized around interests. As long as the basic functionalities of a SNS are incorporated into the design of a site, it will still adhere to the definition referred to in the former paragraph. People are still able to create a personal profile, manage a list of users with whom they share a connection, albeit a connection based on one of the aforementioned specific channels to which both users have subscribed, and traverse their list of connections and those made by others. Thus in my view Ustream.TV can certainly be considered a SNS.

Ustream.TV and copyright infringement
After some time people discovered that Ustream.TV can be used for broadcasting already existing television channels. A computer with a TV card or video-in feature is all that is needed to distribute these already existing channels. This means that the service can also be used for redistributing commercial and pay-per-view channels to large groups of people. People from all over the world can watch channels without paying for their contents. In most if not all cases, these practices of redistributing already existing television channels and watching channels without paying the regular fees will certainly violate several intellectual property regulations. Based on the copyright policy of Ustream.TV, they are aware of the possibility of copyright and trademark infringement. Copyright and trademark owners can file a so called DMCA Notice of Alleged Infringement to counter the unlawful redistribution of their content. But of course this is a countermeasure and doesn’t solve the problem at its roots.

Earlier this year Buma/Stemra, a Dutch copyright collective for composers and music publishers, announced a legal research on embedding YouTube videos containing works from the Buma/Stemra repertoire on weblogs and SNSs. It appears to me that they want to make money out of sites that allow this sort of embedding of copyrighted content, or either want to stop this kind of embedding altogether. Next to peer-to-peer file transfer applications and so called tracker sites, they’re expanding their scope to weblogs and SNSs. This means that Ustream.TV might be closely monitored by copyright collectives of all sorts in the near future, if not already, and can look forward to many notices of alleged infringement and eventually might be held accountable for people that use the service in unintentional and harmful ways.

Boyd is aware of this threat to the expression of one’s identity and community forming affordances that SNSs provide. According to Boyd, the current debate around the issues of copyright evolve around the material component. Instead the discussion should be about the communication and cultural sharing aspect of these material components. Currently these aspects are neglected by the goals of copyright collectives, judicial departments and governments. Mass media have done a terrific job of embedding copyrighted material deep into our culture. According to Boyd this brings up the question if it is possible to communicate without referring to these copyrighted materials at all. People have a tendency to express themselves, especially on SNSs. Are they to be blamed if they include copyrighted material in the expressions of their culture? Essentially the copyright infringement that is taking place on Ustream.TV, for a large part, comes down to the question if copyright collectives have the right to limit culture built on top of culture? Do they have the right to restrict culture instead of serving culture? If these questions are neglected and copyright collectives pursue their goals in the same fashion as they’re targeting peer-to-peer file transfer services and tracker sites, then this might result in a detrimental situation for SNSs as well.

Possible solution in research
Therefore I propose to do an etnographic study to the ways that people express themselves on SNSs in relation to the importance of copyrighted content in culture. The results of this study might give more insight into when certain copyrighted material is rooted deep within culture and therefore is problematic to exclude from using freely in our expressions. Basically this comes down to a study of reforming copyright, and a proposal of where to draw the line between justified free use and rightful restriction of use according to copyright law. This new insight might be helpful in order to counter the possible detrimental effect of banning or charging each and every use of copyrighted material on SNSs, and thus a possible solution in restricting the shaping and expressing one’s identity through these networks.

Boyd, Danah. When media becomes culture: rethinking copyright issues. 29 September 2005.

Boyd, Danah, and Nicole Ellison. Social network sites: Definition, history, and scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Vol. 13, Issue 1, 2007.

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