An Open Letter to Google: You’re Killing Us

The motto of Google is, “Don’t be evil.”  Well, I’ve got a message for you, guys.  You’re being evil.  I don’t think it’s intentional, but you’re killing us.  By “us” I mean the small group of independent film preservationists who try to make a living my preserving and presenting films.  And there’s one thing that’s killing us more than anything else.


YouTube (which is owned by Google), has morphed into a Frankenstein-like creature that’s made up of cat videos, people’s reviews of other media, music, and bootlegged movies.  It’s become the global repository for everything that is cinema.  People never seem to ask me whether something is available on video, on film, whether they can see it with an audience, nothing but this: “Can I see it on YouTube?”

But there’s a problem.  Google has an odd policy about YouTube, which is that anyone can post anything for any reason at any time and it’s up to the original copyright owners to file a complaint to take it down.  The amount of Google patrolling that happens there is pretty thin.  Disney does it of course, but you have to be on it all the time.  New videos pop up every moment.  And I’ve done some complaining… they often ask me if I’m really affiliated with the project.

Google seems to have the idea that the whole world will be better if everything that ever existed in the history of the world is suddenly indexed and available for download.  A few years ago, Google was scanning books, copyright notwithstanding, and posting them for searching in Google Books.  When some of the authors complained, there was a strange reaction that this was somehow stupid.  After all, if the books are up and searchable, isn’t that an advertisement for you to buy it?

No, it isn’t.  And it’s even worse for people restoring films.  You see, the restoration of a film isn’t copyrightable.  Please don’t email me and tell me otherwise.  I’ve researched it.  If I add something to it, then I can copyright the changes, but only that.

So if I restore an uncopyrighted film, spend hours doing it, release it on video to recover my costs, then it’s perfectly legal for someone to rip the DVD and throw it on YouTube.  A lot of people think this is great.  It’s cool.  It’s sharing a movie with the world, opening up the audience.  And, to a certain degree, that’s true.  It is giving publicity to the work.

But it’s free.  And it encourages people not to buy the work, which means that sales go down, and suddenly you’re not making it on the razor-thin margin of sales, but you’re still reaching the same number or more people than you reached before.  They’re just not paying for it.

Sure, I hear you say, there are people who will find out about your work on YouTube and buy it just to show support.  But I’m finding that that’s about 1 person in 10 to 1 in 20.  Five to ten percent.  90%-95% just look at it and say, “WHEE!  IT’S FREE.”

So I’m just a bitter whiner punk, right?  Well, don’t believe me.  Ask people like Paul Gierucki, David Shepard, Kevin Brownlow or Dave Stevenson.  They’ve all had to curtail or stop their releases because of YouTube.

And Google is generous enough to let us share ad revenues with people who post films.  That’s wonderful. We can post our own stuff and hope we can make money that way.  Except no.

The most popular person on YouTube has some six billion views, with an annual income of $4 million.  This equates to about $ .0006 per view.  That’s for dude-boy video games and YouTube Poops that are amazingly popular.  Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that we apply that to a bootlegged version of Seven Chances that appears on YouTube.  It’s got 40,500 views at this point.  I’m not supplying the link because I fear that some of you will watch it.

I spent about 80 hours just fixing the color sequence for this film, and Kino paid me about $250 for my trouble. (They apologized for this, and they were very nice, but they said they couldn’t afford any more.)  The bootlegger has taken this film, which I’ve got to say is probably among the most popular silent Blu-Rays, and he’s earned a whopping–get this–$24.68.

And let’s assume that maybe one in ten would otherwise have bought the film if they couldn’t get it for free… that’s 4050 copies sold.  I’m sure Kino would LOVE to have sold that many of this disc set.  I’ll bet it didn’t sell anywhere near that.

While I’m on the topic of Seven Chances, let me take this opportunity to rant a bit more.  Not only does Kino make no money off this, but the print on YouTube is horrible.  The uploaders used a compression technique that makes the film really dark, so that you can barely see the color in the sequence I restored, and a lot of detail is missing in the rest of the film.

I think this really does Seven Chances and silent film in general a great disservice.  By featuring inferior copies on YouTube, we’re perpetuating the idea that silent films, and old films in general, look bad.  People almost invariably feel that it’s due to bad old technology and not bad new compression techniques.  This perpetuates the idea that old films are inherently boring and not worth seeing.


Not only is Google depriving us of income that we might otherwise get, the are also poisoning the well for new people giving these films a chance.  The vast majority of the bootlegged features are exceptionally dark and blurry, and this is often noted in reviews that we see on IMDb.  Sometimes for good movies.

Let me clarify that Seven Chances IS copyrighted, and that one of the bootlegged versions has been up for two years from the time of this posting.  It’s got the copyrighted score on it.  Imagine how much easier it would be to bootleg someone’s restoration of a public domain film.  That’s not even against Google’s rules.

Look, I appreciate free as much as the next guy, but the market here is dying.  At one time, you could try to sell films to TCM, but they’re becoming increasingly insular due to costs, and they still have zillions of films from the RKO, MGM, and Warner library that they’ve never aired.  Why should they license films from outside?

That leaves Google.  I’d love to see Google spend some of its dripping billions on putting non-junk on YouTube.  If YouTube is suddenly the cultural repository of all video not on NetFlix, then can it at least look good?  Can you find collectors, historians, archives, and preservationists who will get you good prints instead of stuff that’s reviewed as “bad, and I couldn’t read most of the titles”?  Throw those people or organizations a check.  After all, they saved good copies of the films in the first place.

I suppose we can consider, but their stuff, with a few exceptions, looks even worse than YouTube.  It’s even more lax in rules than YouTube, with blatant violations like an uncut Dracula and the Metropolis restorations with complete Kino titles.

I know that a lot of people seem to think that restorations happen like magic and are pretty cheap to do.  I used to be in the computer animation business and we’d have a similar problem: guys would come in and request substantial changes, then come back in 5 minutes and ask to see them.  Hence our motto: “All computer rendering takes place in zero time.”

Since I do this professionally, I’ll outline what I’ve done on my NFPF restoration of King of the Kongo.  I get a couple of requests a month to put this on YouTube, and about two per week asking for the Dr. Film episodes.  Then they don’t understand why I answer, “I can’t afford to put them on YouTube.  Once they’re on YouTube, they’re valueless.

I don’t have another job to fall back on for the money I lose on this.  And if I did have another job, I wouldn’t be able to do a lot of the work I do now.  Here’s what went into King of the Kongo, Chapter 10:

  1. About $6500 of lab work, including scanning and archival film recording.
  2. Breaking the film down on a shot-by-shot basis to fix contrast and brightness issues (about two days of work plus about two days of computer rendering time.)
  3. Stabilizing the film on shot-by-shot basis to make the image stable enough to do lip sync.  (about 4 days of work plus a couple of days of rendering.)
  4. Synchronizing the sound.  This is a technical disaster that I could go on about for hours, but let’s just say it was about a week.
  5. Getting everything moved.  The sound discs moved from Michigan to Indianapolis, to Virginia, to New Jersey, back to Virginia, and back to New Jersey.  This was all hand-carried to avoid damage in shipment. The film went from NY to Indianapolis, then hard drives went back and forth.  The logistics are a nightmare, with about 5-6 people involved in it.
  6. Restoring the credits.  Again, a long, long explanation, but a lot of math and about 4 days of work for 45 seconds of footage.
  7. De-noising the picture.  Using a special statistical analysis program, all 30,000+ frames of the film are analyzed to remove suspected dust.  About half of these are false positives and must be cancelled by hand.  This takes about two weeks.

Now, I did get an NFPF grant to cover this.  They covered the lab expenses.  Everything else I did myself.

So am I going to put this all on YouTube for free?

Am I going to produce more episodes of the Dr. Film show and post them for free?  (Maybe even one with the Kongo restorations.)

I’d love to.  I’ll do it when Google sends me a big check to cover my heating bills for last winter.  I’m sure not going to make it back in Blu-Ray sales.