Last month, a 22-year old Norwegian called Kevin Synnes took a trip with his girlfriend to get a new engine for his car. They stopped at a hardware store and Kevin found a large box filled with toy rubber geese. Wanting to play a prank on his girlfriend, and while recording it on his phone, he pressed one of the toys, which made a honking noise, then pressed the entire box, resulting in an ungodly loud sound. Kevin sent the recording to his friends on Snapchat, got a great reaction, and then posted on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. Here it is for your enjoyment.
The video was gaining views slowly, but it wasn’t until a guy named Charlie Murphy converted the YouTube video into a Vine and posted it that the whole thing took a life of its own, and became viral gold. As of writing, the original YouTube video has been played over 7 million times, and the Vine has been looped 108 million times. The videos are making the rounds named “Duck Army” or “Army of Ducks”.
One of the aspects that I have found fascinating about the story is just how irrelevant copyright has become for viral content. If we take a maximalist view of copyright, the viral success of the Duck Army would be highly unlikely. The video is protected by copyright, and sharing it on YouTube should in principle preclude anyone else from re-using it without permission, let alone convert it into a different platform and distributing it that way. In theory, Kevin Synnes could sue Charlie Murphy for copyright infringement. But that’s not how things work in the viral economy, in various interviews Mr Synnes has thanked Mr Murphy for helping to make the original popular. Virality is its own reward in many instances, and it would seem preposterous if any lawyers were to get involved at this point. Money is to be made from YouTube views surely, and a successful video can expect to see on average between $1-2 USD per 1,000 views. Mr Synnes may already be looking at over $10k USD for his viral video, why would you even bother with copyright?
Furthermore, a viral video can generate an number of mash-ups, and the Duck Army is no exception, with gems such as Taylor Swift’s I Knew You Were Trouble (Army Duck Edition). While some of the mash-ups may fall under fair use or fair dealing, but that is irrelevant as the derivatives help to redirect traffic to the original, generating more income.
Does the rise of the viral economy spell the end of copyright?
Maybe, but not yet. Interestingly, copyright has been playing a surprise supporting role in the viral age. The Duck Army video has just been snatched up by a viral licensing agency called ViralHog, which is just one of a new crop of licensing agencies that specialise in selling and buying viral videos. The idea is that the author of a video grants an exclusive licence to the agency, who will then monetise the content with “news networks, television programs, and websites across the globe”.
This is an increasingly lucrative line of business, as the large number of smartphones has made it possible for newsworthy events to be captured in camera by bystanders (just look at all the videos of the Shoreham airshow crash). Every time a tragedy is caught on camera nowadays, there follows an army of journalists on social media asking for permission to use the content (have a look at this beauty).
I have no idea what the future will bring, but it does seem to be that we are in the middle of a shift in perception of what makes content valuable. While copyright is still relevant, it seems like an afterthought, something that exists for a few intermediaries and news outlets to squeeze meagre profits, when the real story is shred across social media. It has been often remarked that modern news have become feeders of content, looking for snippets from social media to re-broadcast for older audiences who still watch TV every night.
Not for the last time, copyright looks like the industry of the past.