Aggregators are on the rise. It’s really nothing new— Google search is an aggregator after all. However there there is an important distinction between a massive, comprehensive search like Google and the new breed of content aggregators that are popping up as the go-to ‘portals’ for media and genre-specific consumption. As this occurs, places like Metacritic, Google News or Hype Machine, and their somewhat shadier contemporaries SurftheChannel, and Movie2k are organizing, analyzing and sometimes generating a host of copyrighted content and in turn a host of conflicts with content creators.
Why go to the NY Times website to read movie reviews when you can go to Metacritic and read every review by every source, an averaged rating, and reader reviews all in one place? Ideological affinity with Steven Holden. Narrow mindedness? It seems natural to want as many points of view as possible in order to build the most informed opinion you can about a film. However, when does the interest of the provider of such an index come into conflict with the indexee? A search engine or an aggregator is a commercial technology, not an altruistic venture. What rights does the aggregator have when it comes to displaying copyrighted content? And what if that content is explicitly intended for unauthorized, illegal access be it downloading or streaming?
In 2006 AP sued Google news for displaying images, headlines and copy from its articles. Upon pulling their content from Google, AP CEO Tom Curly said “We will no longer tolerate the disconnect between people who devote themselves — at great human and economic cost, to gathering news of public interest and those who profit from it without supporting it.” Google and the AP struck a deal in 2007. It was also decided in 2006 that thumbnails created by search engines qualify as fair use.
Take another example: HypeMachine. For its first few Years HypeMachine aggregated MP3 files from music blogs en masse. All you had to do was search for an artist’s newly leaked album and you’d instantly be linked through to a number of sites providing a track or two (or sometimes more). Last year HypeMachine signed a deal with Sound Cloud to detect streaming sound cloud players in blog posts. Sound Cloud is a centralized site that artists can use to provide authorized streams of their tracks while tracking details analytics about listeners. This year it announced it’s up to 3 million users. The deal with Hype Machine posed Sound Cloud for a major expansion of it’s blogosphere presence. Together the two companies are forging new methods of online music consumption. A hugely popular aggregator paired with legal, data mining content distribution — an ethical music consumer’s dream? Plus, analytics and data mining enable charts, which enable music discovery. The downside is that I generally don’t get to add the mp3 files to my iTunes library, which is traditionally the end game of online music consumption.
Much murkier are streaming television and movie aggregations sites like SurftheChannel, SideReel and Movie2k. All of these sites are arguably generic technologies, protected by Safe Harbor status, that aggregate user submitted links to content that is hosted through a litany of file transfer services. However, SurftheChannel and Movie2k explicitly induce visitors to access copyright infringing content. Movie2k for instance has a section dedicated to ‘Cinema’ movies and often features handheld camera recordings of movies the day they are released. Unlike the landscape of music consumption, where supply and demand are much more equally abundant, demand for film is asymmetrically proportioned to a scarce supply of high production film. 3rd party file hosts such as MegaVideo deliberately incentivise piracy by paying 1500 dollars for every 1 million views of content uploaded to its services which are registered in Hong Kong. iTunes movie rentals and network hosted TV show streams interspersed with ads cannot effectively counter the instantaneous pirating of movies— especially after inducing and seducing the public into desiring them through extensive and often intrusive marketing campaigns. In this case, the proverbial hype machine of the film and television industry is in fact an engine for piracy which provides immediate access to content.
Aggregation is important because it creates a more relevant internet. Aggregation sites use the traditional mechanisms of search paired with analytics and social driven ranking and organization to display content that has meaning for the visitor beyond the externally-curated content dashboards of web 1.0 portals. However, the tools and filters for generating relevance have a tendency to take on a life of their own and a problematic position in relation to content creators. If the Hype Machine is any example of a collaborative solution, then it shows a need for ethical partnerships between aggregators and content providers — be it music bloggers, or file transfer websites.