Media Headliner: The geeks who changed the way we use media

A $1bn copyright lawsuit shows just what an impact YouTube and its fresh-faced founding fathers have had.

It clearly helps, should you want your story to attain fairytale status, if you sell your company for $1.65 billion within 18 months of launching it. Overnight success? Check. Rags to riches? At a push.

Then other elements of the back story can fall into place. The seeds of an idea growing out of a charmed dinner party. The eureka moment. The unlikely start-up in a California garage. Yes, the Chad and Steve yarn has it all. And, like a handful of legendary double acts before them (Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak at Apple, Sergey Brin and Larry Page at Google), they've seemingly already transcended the real world and passed into the annals of the 21st century's new economy mythology.

These are boy geniuses, the geeks who made good, latter day Thomas Edisons who were marked for greatness by precocious attempts at entrepreneurship that stretched back into earliest childhood.

And the script has poignant moments, too. In Chad and Steve's case, it derives from another archetype of the genre - the story of the third musketeer (fellow founder Jawed Karim) who missed out on some of the money and all of the glory, having left to begin a post-graduate degree in computer science at Stanford University just before Google pitched up with its suitcases full of cash.

For, of course, Chad and Steve are none other than Chad Hurley (born 1977) and Steve Chen (born 1978), the founders of YouTube - the phenomenon that's so clearly the future of new media that it's currently having the derriere sued off it by old media, notably Viacom, for content theft.

And let's not underestimate the significance of this. The Viacom lawsuit, filed last week, will in all probability come to be seen as the defining moment in the history of digital media. Viacom's writ seeks $1 billion damages for the 160,000 unauthorised clips (including material from Jackass, SpongeBob SquarePants and Beavis and Butt-head) accessible on YouTube.

A Viacom statement claims that YouTube "has built a lucrative business out of exploiting the devotion of fans to others' creative works in order to enrich itself and its corporate parent, Google. Their business model, which is based on building traffic and selling advertising off of unlicensed content, is clearly illegal."

Strip out all the copyright material (sports footage, music videos, clips from cult TV shows) and all YouTube is good for is shaky amateur footage of kittens pawing at laser pen dots projected on to kitchen walls, feckless wannabee performers or (and this is Chad's favourite strand) home-produced clips of dangerously wacky chemistry experiments gone wrong.

Web 2.0 is clearly unsustainable if it has no content. Tellingly, however, the YouTube founders can hardly be characterised as cynically rapacious shysters - though neither are they the fearless fighters for truth and freedom that they're currently being portrayed as across America's student campuses.

They're not exactly uncommercial in their outlook, but they have a rather gentle, even idealised world view. Ironically, perhaps, they're proud of the way they've managed to protect YouTube users from rampant commercial exploitation.

They stopped Google barging in overnight with proprietary ad-serving technology - much to the frustration of Google's chief executive, Eric Schmidt. Before Google ever came on the scene, they'd decided to not allow "pre-rolls" - short commercials that viewers are forced to watch before a requested video. In an ideal world, Hurley would like to build partnerships with advertisers whereby they fund specially produced content in keeping with the existing feel and tone of the site.

The lawsuit will, among many other things, bring the "monetisation" of the YouTube phenomenon into even sharper focus. After all, it's not exactly a cash machine yet. And let's not forget the small minority of observers who've always held to a dangerously contrarian view - namely that bandwidth costs on YouTube will always outstrip even top-end expectations for advertising revenue growth.

As for the Viacom litigation, the smart money is on old and new media coming to a mutually satisfactory accommodation. YouTube can act, after all, as a marketing channel for TV channels - a free forum for programme promos that underperforming shows would kill to be able to exploit.

It's only an outside bet that YouTube will crash and burn, triggering Dotcom Blowout 2.0. But if it does, the caravan will just move on, especially for the media-savvy Hurley. While Chen is the Taiwan-born techie terrier, the more photogenic Hurley comes across as a rather languorous dilettante.

He has classic new-media credentials, having studied both computer science and graphic design at university. He has been around the block once before, having been part of the PayPal team (as were Karim and Chen) that sold up to eBay for $1.54 billion in 2002.

And actually (though this bit is usually glossed over, not quite fitting with the myth), he's part of the Californian digital aristocracy - he's married to Kathy Clark, the daughter of James Clark, the much-celebrated founder of both Silicon Graphics and Netscape.

So, when they come to make the biopic of this modern morality tale, they will probably focus in on Chen. When he was a child, his mother took him to a fortune teller in Taipei. The prognosis? One thing is sure, the fortune teller told a disappointed mother, this child will never be rich. Oh well. Of such things are legends made.

Topics