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Hillary, 1984 and the Future of Copyright

How might the 2008 election’s hottest viral video ad cause companies to rethink their commitment to copyright?

March 29, 2007

How might the 2008 election's hottest viral video ad cause companies to rethink their commitment to copyright?

The most famous viral video of the U.S. election cycle so far, “Vote Different,” has pushed all presidential campaigns to rethink how they work with volunteers, consultants, advertisers and the Web. Produced on a home computer by Philip de Vellis, a self-described Obama fan (who also happened to work for Blue State Digital, a company under contract with the Obama campaign), the video elegantly remixes a two-decade old Apple Macintosh commercial reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984 with the imagery of Hillary Clinton announcing her presidential run.

The result is a chilly 74-second commercial that parodies Hillary — and extols the virtues of Obama. At the time of writing, the video has been viewed more than 2.8 million times on YouTube — and has been watched by countless additional millions due to televised news coverage of the ad.

It has even created (or revived) a new buzzword — citizen-generated content. However, its real impact on the eventual outcome of the 2008 presidential campaign is largely uncertain. As a recent Zogby poll suggests, it was Hillary who benefited from the video in the short term — but the longer-term implications are impossible to predict.

Yet it’s not the campaign headquarters who should seriously think about the long-term implications of Vote Different. Rather, it is corporate America — and especially the big entertainment companies — that should heed the success of the home-made clip and change how they think about intellectual property, copyright and how to embrace the creativity of "the masses."

So far, the only entity to reap the full benefit from this campaign video saga is Apple Inc. What more could it have wished for? A captivating ad that was originally aired only during the 1984 Super Bowl suddenly got a second lease on life.

Many young users realized for the first time that Apple was as cool in the 1980s as it is today. (In fact, many weren’t even aware it existed back then). Plus, there was an excellent product placement in the ad in that the rebellious character in the clip was listening to an iPod — something Apple added in its 2004 revision of the advertisement.

On top of it all, the creator of the “mash-up” used Apple equipment to produce the ad — and made this fact as public as possible. His final product speaks for itself, being among the most professional-looking amateur videos on the Web today. If that’s something that one individual can produce on an Apple machine today, who will really need ad agencies tomorrow?

From a public relations perspective, that’s a dream come true for Apple. The company gained exposure to a few million extra viewers — at no extra cost and in a very positive light.

Of course, some laws were broken. Philip De Vellis never asked Apple for permission to use its undoubtedly copyrighted materials when making the clip. Neither did YouTube when it agreed to host the ad. All we know is that in the end, more — not less — creativity was unleashed, while the company that owns the rights to the initial commercial, Apple, has clearly benefited.

Now, that’s something that rarely ocurs in the battlefield between the established intellectual property-right holders and progressive cultural activists.

The Vote Different commercial may be the tipping point that will lead many right holders — particularly those in the entertainment industry — to the realization that they need to open up their archives and lobby to shorten (or scrap completely) the lengthy copyright terms that now extend almost into eternity.

The very elegance of the Vote Different twist is that it bypasses the traditional — and often controversial — arguments why copyright extensions are bad for society. As free culture advocates like Lawrence Lessig keep telling us, the copyright extensions do nothing but offer companies virtual monopolies on content produced by real artists — and they definitely stifle innovation.

This argument is built on a premise that the original creators, some of whom died long ago, hardly benefit from the rights extension — while other artists, most of whom depend on imbibing and remixing previous works of culture to create their own, find it increasingly difficult to produce new content.

Lessig is probably right. Yet his logic doesn’t sound tremendously persuasive to the companies, who care more about creating shareholder value than expanding creativity.

The 1984 video “mash-up” has turned this argument about copyright on its head. Now the companies have seen that relaxing the copyright restrictions — or scrapping them altogether — might generate more brand buzz, in addition to helping artists.

PepsiCo, General Motors and others realized that when they allowed amateurs to create these companies' Super Bowl commercials. Not only were they much cheaper than professionally made ads, but they were also much catchier.

At this juncture, it would only make sense to go even further and allow users to do whatever they wish with the massive archives of video, audio and other data that these companies have amassed over the decades. There is no reason why "crowdsourcing" — another buzzword of the year — wouldn’t work in advertising.

First, though, the sources need to be opened up. Then, the crowds will decide whether they want to work with existing footage, create their own — or use both in a creative manner.

Once companies do that, they will see some immediate results. More sales, better engagement with customers — and better brand recognition. Just imagine how many boring, old and decrepit brands could be reinvigorated just by letting passionate users work with the source material for their own purposes. Be it for parody (something that falls under free speech and should therefore be protected) — or just for expressing their love for, or interest in, the company.

Who would have thought this might be possible just two decades ago? A world where one neither has to pay for production (users would do it for free) nor for showing the ad (YouTube will take care of that also). And yet, why are companies so slow to adapt to this world?

Slow they might be, but the writing is clearly on the wall. The current era — where companies drive so much of the popular culture through advertising, but then never fully engage in subsequent interactions due to copyright restrictions — might end very soon.

Powered by the Internet, popular culture will inevitably move towards more, not less interaction, and the companies will need to either embrace that in full or suffer the consequences.

We’ll see if Apple and Steve Jobs — who has recently called for a better and fairer digital rights management system — will stand up to their words. They have two choices. On one hand, they can make a lot of noise, request YouTube to remove the video and sue the creator (an art perfected by their competitor, Viacom).

Alternatively, they can embrace this buzz in its entirety, put up the video on their website, release all or most of their multimedia archives under Creative Commons (or a similar license) and encourage more ads like Vote Different.

Eventually, the market will make them understand which way is the right one. Let’s hope they discover this sooner rather than later.

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