For a company that knows way too much about everyone else, Google shows shockingly little self-awareness.
We were struck recently by the willful ignorance of their article “Rituals for hypergrowth: An inside look at how YouTube scaled.”
The piece is written by Shishir Mehrotra, the former Google VP of Engineering who co-led the YouTube team from 2008-2014, not long after the November 2006 acquisition. In the article, Mehrotra says that the people and internal processes he and his colleagues assembled were key to YouTube’s meteoric rise.
But a very important point is conspicuously missing from his analysis. Mehrotra makes no mention of the fact that the service was built on the backs of creatives, whose content the company stole and monetized.
As Eric Bangeman explained in a February 2007 Ars Technica story, “[w]hile YouTube has a vast amount of user-created content up on its site, one of its chief draws is the copyrighted content captured from TV – music videos, clips from TV shows, and sports highlights – and posted by its users.”
Hell, all of the 2008 movie 8 Mile had already been on there for at least six months, “broken up into 12 nine-minute chunks to get around YouTube’s ban on longer clips.” An 18-year-old YouTuber had posted it “as a favor to others who had shared movies.” Back then, about half of the NBC Universal content on YouTube appeared without permission, and NBC Universal was already sending YouTube around 1,000 takedown requests a month for a variety of the studio’s copyrighted television and movie content. That small number of notices seems downright quaint by today’s standards.
No matter how competent your people and how efficient your operations, achieving and sustaining rapid growth is much easier when you don’t provide fair compensation – or any at all – for the main component of your business, even when you aren’t stealing it.
Mehrotra says YouTube was “growing [at the time] from a (mostly misunderstood) video sharing property to the platform for millions of creators to connect with audiences all over the world.” What he’s glossing over is that YouTube often didn’t bother to ask those creators whether they chose to share their content with the world via YouTube, even though his “initial role was owning the monetization strategy.” The creators had no choice in the matter.
Somewhere between 30% to 70% of the film and television content YouTube carried back then was unauthorized. And for YouTube, that was a feature, not a bug, as revealed in an instant message exchange between YouTube co-founder Steve Chen and a colleague leading up to the acquisition. “[I want to] concentrate all of our efforts in building up our numbers as aggressively as we can through whatever tactics, however evil,” he said, quickly adding, “I think we can sell for somewhere between $250m – $500m.” Yeah, we added those italics. Chen just put it right out there.
Google was well aware of the rampant piracy on YouTube, as evidenced by an email Google content executive David Eun sent to then-CEO Eric Schmidt in May 2006. “I can’t believe your [sic] recommending buying YouTube,” he said. “Besides the ridiculous valuation they think they’re entitled to, they’re 80% illegal pirated content.”
Other Google executives described YouTube as a “rogue enabler of content theft” whose “business model is completely sustained by pirated content.” Yet despite that knowledge, Google agreed to pay $1.65 billion to buy YouTube, choosing simply to set aside $200 million at the close of the deal for copyright litigation.
A year or two later, enter Mehrotra stage left. And without a hint of irony, he says that “most of the team that came on board was ‘more pirate than navy.’”
What he apparently means, based on context and the source to which he attributes the phrase, is that they were a ragtag team throwing caution to the wind to join a new Google venture not everyone thought would succeed. It would be his job to unite the troops.
“YouTube had its own distinct culture and challenges,” Mehrotra says, “so while we borrowed many best practices, we also recognized that many of the Google rituals didn’t quite fit.” Of course, one bit of culture they apparently shared was little respect for creatives.
Mehrotra says this period was characterized by “enormous hypergrowth” and the team “had to adapt to the breakneck pace at which [the user-base, revenues, and employee numbers] were growing.”
Why do we get the feeling that in their rush they didn’t spend much time considering how best to respect the content creators and their copyright? Sure, over the years they’ve developed a suite of content protection tools in their back pocket – but Google still doesn’t make them available to independent creatives.
Eventually, he says, they got their strategic plans in place and “could focus on driving healthy execution on a weekly basis.” YouTube and Google’s definition of “healthy” did not include the health of creatives.
This whole backstory just reinforces the lack of acknowledgement in the halls of Google and YouTube of the people whose art and livelihoods they walked over to construct this monster. But we suppose that’s par for the course when it comes to Google.
In the wake of YouTube’s “hypergrowth,” the creative communities are continually on the defense, attempting to protect their livelihoods from the rampant piracy on the platform. Creatives continue to send over 900 million takedown notices to Google each year. They want and need some help. They continue to ask for expanded access to YouTube’s already-existing and robust content protection tools.
If the executives at YouTube were to wake up one day overcome with the desire to give the creative communities some reparation, a good start would be giving them access to the content protection tools. After over a decade of abusing creatives’ rights, it would be the right thing to do.
If that day ever comes, we’ll be the first to celebrate.