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Facebook Underestimates Furor Over ‘Freebooting’ At Its Own Risk

If Mark Zuckerberg is anything, he’s forward-thinking. A social network for Ivy Leaguers doesn’t become a global giant reaching 2 billion people all by itself.

The Facebook founder offered an intriguing long view for his business on the company’s second-quarter earnings call last month, when he traced the evolution of communication on social media from text to video to his next goal, virtual reality. “Immersive 3D content is the obvious next thing after video,” he said, citing his acquisition last year of Oculus VR.

Credit Zuckerberg for having the foresight to begin paving the path to the future of his business. But he also needs to pay attention to some bumps in the road right in front of him concerning video, where the race has barely begun.

The company professes to be generating 4 billion video views per day, which sounds impressive, but comes with an asterisk: Facebook’s definition of a view is three seconds of autoplay without audio. The site might as well be counting how many times its users blink while watching.

That shaky metric doesn’t entirely explain the inflated numbers. A bigger problem is that the platform lacks adequate copyright protection, which has allowed an astounding volume of “freebooting,” a practice in which viral videos are lifted from places like YouTube and re-posted through Facebook’s native player.

As if the economics of online video weren’t challenging enough, Facebook is essentially robbing producers of revenue from the content on which its users are feasting.

If that sounds like a familiar lament in the industry, consider the possibility that Facebook launched its video platform with little vigilance regarding freebooting because that same lax approach to copyright protection was exactly what allowed YouTube to accumulate such incredible scale. By the time its Content ID system was put in place, YouTube was big enough to thrive regardless.

It’s a testament to the clout of Facebook that very little public griping has occurred; no one wants to piss off an 800-pound gorilla. But that silence is ending.

First came a Twitter tirade from Fullscreen CEO George Strompolos in June, citing “stolen” content from the creators his company represents. But what really may have changed the game was a blistering blog post last week titled “Theft, Lies and Facebook Video” from Hank Green, an influential vlogger who co-founded the industry conference Vidcon.

If any of this is troubling anyone at Facebook, it’s not apparent. All the company is doing in response is issuing pat statements about already having a copyright system in place, called Audible Magic. But it might as well be branded Silent Neglect, considering all the pilfered video on its platform.

The company also claims to be working toward implementation of a better system, details for which could come as soon as this summer. But the fact that Facebook launched its video platform without proper copyright protection in the first place tells you all you need to know.

Maybe Facebook is just too big to care about what could be misinterpreted as a few isolated instances of whining. But the company’s own power may be blinding it to a dangerous game being played, which could end up damaging its brand.

First, there’s the legal risk to consider. Just as Viacom challenged Google over YouTube, Zuckerberg is flirting with seeing the same kind of lawsuit cross his desk. Maybe that’s trivial to a company with a $260 billion market cap, but it’s still an unnecessary distraction.

Zuckerberg also should remember that the people being alienated most here by his indifference are, like Green, influential video creators with huge global followings. What better way for them to advance their cause than to vent their claims of piracy in their videos? You can bet those would be yanked off Facebook quicker than a three-second autoplay.

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