Wikipedia & YouTube

Why Wikipedia and YouTube will never be integrated.
Wikipedia, Google, technology, law
2009-01-152013-11-08 finished certainty: certain importance: 3


Crit­i­cisms of Wikipedia tend to fall into 2 cat­e­gories—the clue­less and the cliche. Either they are based on lack of knowl­edge1, or they are obvi­ous if you think about how wikis work2 and have been writ­ten about and cov­ered with mind-numb­ing fre­quen­cy.

The Wiki­me­dia Com­mons project tends to attract the for­mer3. For exam­ple, peo­ple crit­i­cize it for not sup­port­ing Flash, for only sup­port­ing Ogg & The­ora media files, for using a Java applet for play­back, for sup­port­ing only Fire­fox’s <video></video> tags…

Commons and videos

But the stu­pid­est I’ve seen in a long time has to be the crit­i­cism that the Foun­da­tion is wast­ing the hard-earned money of donors by not host­ing videos on YouTube4.

The lev­els of fail­ure in this crit­i­cism are many and con­sid­er­able. Wikipedia will nev­er, ever host things on YouTube unless YouTube makes some con­sid­er­able changes. (Heck, the Wikipedian com­mu­nity views merely link­ing to YouTube con­tent with dis­taste.)

YouTube’s software sucks

From a tech­ni­cal stand­point, YouTube is a ter­ri­ble part­ner:

  1. Its inter­face is clut­tered and poor.

  2. It is not local­ized to the over 200 lan­guages the Medi­aWiki engine sup­ports5

  3. It does not sup­port basic fea­tures impor­tant to Wikipedi­ans, like the triv­ial abil­ity to down­load the files.

    More specif­i­cal­ly, one can down­load the file, but this file is not the orig­i­nal file! The meta­data is gone, a vast amount of res­o­lu­tion (au­dio & visu­al) is destroyed in the encod­ing, and YouTube report­edly does still other lossy pro­cess­ing.

  4. It does not sup­port extremely large files. Wiki­me­dia Com­mons sup­ports files up to 100 megabytes and more; file sizes this large are absolutely nec­es­sary in order to han­dle video files of any rea­son­able length.

    One goal of Com­mons is to be archival, in the sense of pro­vid­ing orig­i­nals and faith­ful repro­duc­tions of Free con­tent; oth­er­wise the project sim­ply can­not meet its goals as an edu­ca­tional resource. Grainy 3202 pixel 5-minute videos are sim­ply unac­cept­able.

  5. It does not sup­port meta­da­ta.

    1. The exist­ing YouTube sup­port for meta­data is piti­ful. The upload­er, the date, a few words of sum­ma­ry, and per­haps some other items like whether it’s a ‘video response’ to some­thing. The over­all impres­sion is really sad. YouTube com­ments are leg­en­dar­ily moronic; they don’t have to be—there isn’t even a sim­ple rank­ing, it’s just that new com­ments dis­place older ones and so there is no way for good com­ments to per­sist. Even Slash­dot in the 1990s had a bet­ter com­ment sys­tem than YouTube. That YouTube, owned by a com­pany famous for hav­ing many of the best pro­gram­mers in the world, can not or will not imple­ment a bet­ter sys­tem speaks vol­umes.
    2. Medi­aWiki, on the other hand, sup­ports meta­data very well (to an arbi­trary degree, in fact, because of the tem­plate sys­tem). Com­mons has a won­der­ful library-­like cul­ture of check­ing images, adding meta­data, and orga­niz­ing media. If files were to be put on YouTube, it would lead to a meta­data holo­caust. There’s sim­ply nowhere to put it in YouTube.
  6. Its soft­ware is not free. Flash is not free. YouTube’s sys­tems are not free. The source of nei­ther is avail­able in any way. This alone would rule out YouTube as a pos­si­ble part­ner.

    • Why? One of the fun­da­men­tal tenets of Wikipedia is that it will be ‘user-friendly’ in the best sense. There won’t be any busi­ness or prof­it-­driven bull­shit that gets in the way of pro­duc­ing stuff. This means as lit­tle bureau­cratic or finan­cial over­head as pos­si­ble.
    • This view has major con­se­quences. For exam­ple, the con­tent will be avail­able and usable by every­one: com­mer­cial users6, bank­rupt users, every­one. Flash and the audio/video codecs are not avail­able to every­one (in­clud­ing com­mer­cial user­s). They are encum­bered with licens­ing restric­tions and roy­alty pay­ments, and are ille­gal to mod­ify or change in any way. Sup­pose some­one wanted to dis­trib­ute DVDs of Com­mons videos and music files; if they used MP3s and other such encum­bered for­mats, who will pay the own­ers7 their pound of flesh?
  7. Com­mer­cial hosts are unre­li­able.

    YouTube may be the most suc­cess­ful video site online, but that’s like set­ting a record at the Olympics or burn­ing a CD—it’ll last for­ever or 5 years, whichever comes first. YouTube is not even a decade old. Google does not have a long-term track record, and reg­u­larly shuts down ser­vices which do not pan out or whose salad days are behind it. Nat­u­ral­ly, YouTube has­n’t been delet­ing files yet (other than the files deleted as part of the usual high error rate of a legal­ly-fear­ful ser­vice), but it’d be very stu­pid to wait a few decades to see how YouTube pans out. We should look at the out­side view and see how other online ser­vices have been doing over the span of less than 2 decades; the obvi­ous can­di­date is Yahoo!, a mam­moth Inter­net com­pany that was once as suc­cess­ful and dom­i­nant as Google is now.

    The per­spec­tive from Yahoo! is not good. It stag­nated for years, and recent man­age­ment has been aggres­sively shed­ding ser­vices. First to go were the ter­abytes of user con­tent at . Next on the block was the data­base, with its hun­dreds of mil­lions of tags for URLs. Most recent­ly, was sched­uled to go down the mem­ory hole on 2011-03-15 (too bad about that roughly 25 ter­abytes of video). See also my .

  8. YouTube likely does not respect WMF’s strin­gent pri­vacy pol­icy—after all, it makes its money from adver­tis­ing (which might itself be a prob­lem as adver­tis­ing can entail con­flicts of inter­est). Espe­cially prob­lem­atic from the pri­vacy per­spec­tive has been Google’s uni­fi­ca­tion of user accounts across all its prop­er­ties, moves towards real-­name accounts, and encour­ag­ing YT view­ers to have Google accounts.

  9. The YouTube/Google back­end does not use all-FLOSS com­po­nents as WMF prefers.

Fur­ther rea­sons could be adduced. I hope it’s clear after 7 points that in order to become an accept­able host, YouTube would have to cease to be YouTube.

YouTube’s terms of service suck

But let’s say that we’ve given up on the idea of YouTube as a ‘pri­mary’ host. Could­n’t per­haps we still put up sec­ondary back­ups, for peo­ple who like using YouTube instead of Com­mons, and don’t mind the (very) lim­ited selec­tion and qual­i­ty? It would­n’t even have to be any offi­cial liai­son between the Wiki­me­dia Foun­da­tion and YouTube—just a few users select­ing videos, com­press­ing, and upload­ing.

Sad­ly, even this is com­pletely impos­si­ble. At least, if you care about things like copy­right laws.

You see, YouTube claims legal rights over uploaded con­tent that are incom­pat­i­ble with the GFDL and the CC-BY-SA. They are, in fact, incom­pat­i­ble with every copy­left license out there. You can’t com­ply with their Terms of Ser­vice (TOS) and also upload a GFDL’d video8.

Why not? Well, let’s look at para­graph 10 of the YouTube TOS (em­pha­sis added):

When you upload or post a User Sub­mis­sion to YouTube, you grant: 1. to YouTube, a world­wide, non-ex­clu­sive, roy­al­ty-free, trans­fer­able licence (with right to sub­-li­cence) to use, repro­duce, dis­trib­ute, pre­pare deriv­a­tive works of, dis­play, and per­form that User Sub­mis­sion in con­nec­tion with the pro­vi­sion of the Ser­vices and oth­er­wise in con­nec­tion with the pro­vi­sion of the Web­site and YouTube’s busi­ness, includ­ing with­out lim­i­ta­tion for pro­mot­ing and redis­trib­ut­ing part or all of the Web­site (and deriv­a­tive works there­of) in any media for­mats and through any media chan­nels;

Now, remem­ber the legal judo that makes copy­left pos­si­ble: every deriv­a­tive work must be licensed under at least the same license as the orig­i­nal, and be at least as unre­stricted as it. So if I have a GFDL video, every deriv­a­tive of it—and itself—­must always be under the GFDL. The waters can get muddy here with mul­ti­-li­cens­ing changes, but this is the part that mat­ters here.

Now, if I give you a GFDL video, you don’t own the copy­right. You merely have a license from me which lets you do a lot of things with the video only so long as you give the video away as a GFDL’d video. So, how is it pos­si­ble for you to grant YouTube any license which is not the GFDL? You can’t do it! You aren’t allowed—if you try to, you break your GFDL con­tract, and now it’s ille­gal for you to give YouTube the video in any form. The issue isn’t that YouTube is mak­ing you give them the right to do just about any­thing9 with your uploads, but rather that they won’t accept the GFDL.

YouTube will change this para­graph of their Terms of Ser­vice when hell freezes over.

Summing up

So, YouTube is grossly inap­pro­pri­ate tech­ni­cal­ly. It is impos­si­ble legal­ly. And it would be of dubi­ous util­ity any­way, as spend­ing on servers and band­width is a fairly small frac­tion of the Foun­da­tion’s bud­get10. Host­ing Com­mons videos on YouTube is an impres­sive stinker of an idea, the kind of idea which dis­plays frac­tal crud­di­ness—the more you look at spe­cific details, the worse it gets. Which is not to say there aren’t liaisons out there that make sense for Wiki­Me­dia Com­mons (for exam­ple, the Inter­net Archive has a sim­i­lar ide­ol­o­gy, with a good archival approach, and the media col­lec­tions over­lap), but it’s safe to say that com­mer­cial ser­vices are unlikely to make good part­ners. If I had to gen­er­al­ize from YouTube, the les­son to be drawn is:

A prof­itable site is not a user-friendly site.


  1. ‘Wikipedia steals your copy­right’, ‘Wikipedia pages can’t be reli­ably cited’ etc.↩︎

  2. ‘I saw some van­dal­ism the other day’, ‘this arti­cle isn’t very good’, ‘I think this topic should­n’t be cov­ered at all’↩︎

  3. Which is bet­ter than attract­ing the lat­ter, because you can cor­rect some­one who is think­ing but sim­ply lacks knowl­edge about all the rel­e­vant con­straints Wiki­Me­dia Com­mons oper­ates under; but what do you say to the mil­lionth iter­a­tion of “Wikipedia should­n’t be used because any­one can edit it and it’s unre­li­able”?↩︎

  4. This charge was made by a real per­son; to pro­tect the guilty, they will not be linked.↩︎

  5. For details on i8n & Medi­aWiki in gen­er­al, see Mul­ti­lin­gual Medi­aWiki; for hard num­bers, see Trans­la­tion Sta­tis­tics↩︎

  6. One prob­lem with con­sid­er­ing com­mer­cial users is that every­one instantly thinks of large abu­sive cor­po­ra­tions and feels the urge to use only NC licens­es. The prob­lem is that while NC licenses would indeed pun­ish large abu­sive cor­po­ra­tions (as­sum­ing they care), there are many ‘com­mer­cial’ users who don’t seem com­mer­cial at all but would still be banned by such a license. There are other rea­sons of course; see “The Case for Free Use: Rea­sons Not to Use a Cre­ative Com­mons -NC License” for more.↩︎

  7. Thom­son Con­sumer Elec­tron­ics & Fraun­hofer Insti­tute & Audio MPEG, Inc & Alcatel-Lu­cent↩︎

  8. There is one way you could get around it—if you own the entire copy­right on the uploaded video. Then the law would inter­pret your upload as an upload not of a copy­left­-li­censed-video, but of an all-right­s-re­served video, since that’s the only way the TOS would be sat­is­fi­able. The dif­fer­ence is implied in your con­sent.↩︎

  9. They get the rights to use, repro­duce, dis­trib­ute, and make deriv­a­tives of the video. That’s just about every­thing!↩︎

  10. As of the 2007 and 2008 bud­get­s—half and falling! (More infor­ma­tion.)↩︎