The Chronicles of Letting Go


I recently wrote about brands having enough confidence to let go of their image just enough to let consumers run wild with it. That concept is enough to make many professional content producers squirm. Copyright law exists to protect registered content (often commercial) from being stolen, shared, or manipulated without expressed consent.

But should the squirming still happen when content sharing leads to an increase in popularity, say, of a late night television show with ratings that have been sagging for a while? A show seemingly desperate for an infusion of pop-culture relevance?

According to “The New York Times,” NBC threatened video-sharing site YouTube with a lawsuit, asking it to remove about 500 NBC-related clips from its site, including the newly popular “Lazy Sunday” clip from “Saturday Night Live” (“SNL”). Sounds logical. The copyright holder and content producer own said content and don’t want it distributed willy-nilly across the Web.

Here’s the catch: “Lazy Sunday” was viewed over 5 million times on YouTube. It almost single-handedly is helping revitalize the “SNL” brand and appeal. This is arguably the best thing to happen to “SNL” in a decade.

Soon after the clip’s online popularity soared, NBC caught on and made it available on both iTunes and for free. Now, while still available for free on, the clip now $1.99 to download to an iPod via iTunes. That must be the rub. If a lawsuit was threatened to get the most viral clip in months off the most viral Web site, there must be lost revenue.

This brings up a very important question: at what point does content stop being something people want to see and start being something that makes people want to see more?

What happened is a combination of the following three things:

  • A song being downloaded from illegal file-sharing services
  • A movie trailer being downloaded and shared millions of times
  • A TV commercial being shared willingly by hundreds of thousands of people.

So where, and when, is the line drawn between these three things?

In the context of NBC and “Lazy Sunday,” it’s relatively clear the buck stops at the first item. The company will embark on a corporate strategy to distribute its content via ancillary channels that will provide alternate revenue between the broadcast and DVD windows. By allowing people to watch content for free (and not be exposed to other promotional content on, YouTube counters this strategy. It may not be the “Lazy Sunday” scenario that makes it lose money, but it would certainly set a precedent. Part of YouTube’s terms of service is uploaded content must not infringe on copyright.


But if we were to look at the “Lazy Sunday” scenario in a vacuum, it would certainly seem NBC is too aggressively enforcing its copyright here. That’s where the second and third items come in. This clip, albeit shared without consent, was seen by more people than would possibly have tuned in to NBC on any given Saturday night. In an era in which appointment viewing is becoming the norm, people want to see the content they want, when they want it. This is what’s happening to NBC in the wild, and it’s a perfect viral storm — the kind that happens naturally. It’s the best advertisement that could ever have happened for “SNL.”

The moral of the story is as audiences have more ways to consume content, there are more ways to get content. Content is the product of many companies, whether they’re broadcast networks (programming) or national advertisers (Super Bowl commercials). Products, and their relevant revenue streams, need to be protected.

But instead of an absolute line being drawn, perhaps exceptions should be made along the way, particularly in a time of content-business-model experimentation. That way, audiences can sample content, and share it, too. Wouldn’t that be “crazy delicious”?

Meet Ian at Search Engine Strategies in New York City, February 27-March 2.

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