The Eurovision contest is a European phenomenon which simply has no parallel in America. It is a "pop song" contest, if that makes any sense, composed of bands fielded by each of the countries nominally considered to be linked in some way to Europe (it includes countries as far afield as the Ukraine, Turkey and Israel). Viewers vote on winners over the course of the show, and the results are announced on live TV to much flag-waving acclamation. It has been a stepping stone for some bands to bigger and better things. ABBA was a Eurovision contest winner in the early 70s, and even if winners don't go on to worldwide acclaim, they often make a fair bit just from sales in their home countries.
I mentioned all this because I missed the Eurovision contest this year (I can't stand American Idol, but I could bear to watch Eurovision, probably because of all the parties that get thrown on Eurovision night), and thus didn't see Finnish metal band "Lordi," a group that wears monster costumes as part of their act, win the contest. I simply HAD to see that. So, I did a quick Google search, and presto, I found a clip from the contest on YouTube. Watch it. Surreal doesn't do the event justice.
This isn't the first time I've run across YouTube. I've used it to find pieces of the famous South Park episode dissing Tom Cruise and Scientology (the one they won't show anymore, apparently, because of pressure from Mr. Cruise and Scientology). I've found free clips made by regular people with web cameras that get noticed by the Internet mob and linked on blog sites.
YouTube, like other user-maintained video sites, is growing in popularity, and representative of a new trend made possible by the spread of low-cost video gear (web cameras included) and higher-speed internet connections. They also hang under a legal cloud, as the copyright ramifications of uploaded content - such as the aformentioned South Park episode - has yet to be worked out.
Such a cloud is unnecessary, though a solution lies with media companies who need to set clear rules for such things. The low-resolution, short clips of South Park episode are hardly a replacement for a DVD collection, or simply watching an episode on Comedy Channel. I would consider this as much of a threat as the photocopying machine is to book publishing. Yes, it's possible to download enough pieces to construct a full-length South Park episode, but the result is merely a low-res copy that compares poorly with the content available for sale or on broadcast TV.
YouTube clips bear strong similarities to citations from a book, something I do all the time with little fear that the content originator will sue me for infringement. That's why Media companies should set out clear ground rules as to when they will and will not sue a company or individual for copyright infringement. Low-resolution uploads of short duration should be considered "safe." Such content serves as little more than advertisement for the full version.
This is different than a traditional "file trading" network. A full-res audio or video file leaves little reason to pay for the complete version. A low-res copy, however, does.
Of course, this means that public sites hosting user-generated content would have to enforce these rules. They couldn't allow clips longer than a certain predefined limit, or higher than a certain resolution. This is all doable using current technology, however.
Will content companies go for it? Metaphors involving pigs with wings spring to mind, but maybe I'm just being pessimistic.