At around the same time that Robert Wilkinson was becoming an Internet celebrity, a computer algorithm was busy analyzing his singing voice – making sure he wasn’t belting out a tune that somebody else owned.
Last November, the 30-year-old karaoke aficionado and home-brewing hobbyist was pulled over by an RCMP officer in Edson, Alta., who arrested Wilkinson and charged him with impaired driving and failing to submit to a breath-analysis test. On the ride back to the police station, Wilkinson decided to belt out a manic but lyrically faithful rendition of <i>Bohemian Rhapsody</i> . The performance was caught on the police car’s grainy security camera, eventually found its way to YouTube – and finally, late last month, went viral, turning the unemployed Wilkinson into an Internet sensation.
It also put something else in the spotlight: the issue of who can profit from videos like that of Wilkinson channelling Freddie Mercury, and of how Google – which owns YouTube – compensates the owners of works that go viral.
Wilkinson’s video – which police provided to him as part of evidence disclosure after he opted to defend himself against the charges – first made it to the Web three weeks ago. Recalled Wilkinson, in a telephone interview, “I just had to show my buddies the tape. With their inspiration, I put it on the Internet. It took about a week until somebody really noticed it.” (A smattering of videos he had previously uploaded – which included footage of him getting punched in the head, and an instructional video on how to remove intravenous tubing from an arm – never received much attention.)
Then, in late March – after other Web users posted links to the YouTube clip on various high-traffic sites, including Metafilter – Wilkinson’s Queen rendition caught fire. Soon, it had racked up some six million views. Almost overnight, dozens of other users posted their own versions, responses, mash-ups and remixes.
So will Wilkinson become rich from all this? The short answer is: not directly, at least. Thanks to a program called Content ID, launched by Google in 2007, it’s not Wilkinson or his many imitators, but the owner of Bohemian Rhapsody itself, that will benefit from his cop-car mini-concert.
Content ID essentially automates the process of hunting down copyrighted content, using algorithms to scan newly uploaded videos – 60 hours of which hit YouTube every minute of every day – and to cross-reference them against a database of about 500,000 hours’ worth of copyrighted material.
In Wilkinson’s case, Content ID caught a “melody match,” and notified EMI, the music company that owns the rights to Bohemian Rhapsody. After initially opting to have the video taken down, EMI allowed it back online – with a banner ad running along the bottom of the screen. Although Google will not discuss specific figures, a spokesman says that copyright holders keep the “lion’s share” of revenue generated from such ads. (In the case of Wilkinson’s clip, many visitors were shown an ad for lawyers specializing in drunk-driving cases.)
Ironically, Wilkinson’s video, which shows him singing a copyrighted song without permission, was itself used without permission: The original clip, uploaded by Wilkinson, didn’t get much traction; it was only after it was appropriated and reuploaded by another user – going by the username “sheissexychick” – that it became a hit. A quick scan of that user’s reuploading history shows a pattern of posting other people’s videos – complete with ads – in the hopes those videos will go viral. In the case of Wilkinson’s video, that strategy almost worked, until EMI stepped in to claim the video’s banner-ad space as its own.
Wilkinson, meanwhile, says he hasn’t seen a penny as a result of the video. But he is considering new ways to cash in on his sudden fame that may involve promoting his home-brewing operation. That irony, and even his mere Internet popularity, is, not surprisingly, rankling those who work to fight driving under the influence.
“If that’s the way we’re using social media, then pieces of it are wrong,” says Andrew Murie, CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada. Murie’s organization has tried its hand at social-media campaigns of its own – with what Murie describes as “minuscule” results. “If you put a serious message out on YouTube, nobody looks at it,” Murie says. “If you put an idiot out there, it gets a million hits.”
Though not, necessarily at least, a million deposits to his bank account.