Six years ago today Youtube.com launched as a video dating site out of then-CEO Chad Hurley’s garage in Menlo Park, CA (you can see what it looked like here). In its early days the founders did everything they could think of to try to get people to start using the site, including offering money to girls via Craigslist to post videos and attract more male viewers.
After realizing that the market for video dating services wasn’t all that hot the company changed focus to a new model that centered on letting people share videos easily online. The site made a number of strategic decisions in its early days which led to enormous growth in its userbase including using Flash to encode videos on the site (making them accessible to users across browsers and operating systems), implementing social tools to better engage the community (commenting, video responses) and, probably most importantly, allowing videos to be embedded in other sites on the web.
While innovation in design definitely gave Youtube an advantage over competing video sites in its early days, another important reason for its growth was the massive amount of copyrighted content that it carried. As noted in the Viacom v. Youtube case, although the site put a number of controls in place to make sure it abided by DMCA regulations in order to qualify for safe harbor protections, early on it didn’t ban or remove content unless a copyright owner submitted a DMCA takedown notice which left policing the site up to copyright holders and allowed copyrighted content to remain on the site for extended periods of time.
Interestingly, a number of other video sites were cropping up around the same time, many of which were able to build just as active and vibrant communities as Youtube, but differed slightly in their approach. The most notable example is Vimeo.com which actually launched in the Fall of 2004. The site’s primary focus has always been on allowing people to share original content with family and friends. Although it lacked some of the features that Youtube implemented early on which prevented it from getting as wide of distribution and usage, the site also banned commercial videos from its inception and seemed more focused on curating a community of artists/videographers. As a result, the site built a community that was much smaller but also much less inclined to share copyrighted content.
The story of Vimeo seems to suggest that even though both Youtube and Vimeo had similar policies with respect to DMCA regulations that the nature of content actually changed as a result of design and community standards. Because Youtube sought broad rapid adoption, it optimized its site and its videos for getting as many views as possible across the web which may have actually hurt its ability to create a self-policing community of users to minimize copyright abuses. On the contrary, by fostering a small tight knit community with strong standards Vimeo was able to push users to share only original content.
Although Youtube arguably won the web video war it is interesting to note that, given the right incentives, a strong community-based approach to copyright management could actually lead to better outcomes for artists/creators than the caustic use of DMCA takedown notices.