As reported earlier, I was up at 1:30am this morning to help Kevin and Mur Lafferty host the live webcast of the Hugo Awards. As usual, we were doing text-based reporting via CoverItLive. In addition Chicon was streaming the video live through UStream.
I should note in starting that this is the first time I have actually been impressed with the video quality on UStream. It was watchable. If only it had lasted. But, as most of you probably know, UStream pulled the plug on us during Neil Gaiman’s acceptance speech for BDP: Short Form.
And no, that wasn’t because Neil said That Word again. Nor was it because of an unscheduled wardrobe malfunction by Amanda. The feed was pulled for copyright violation. Specifically Chicon had shown clips from the various BDP: Short Form nominees, and UStream deemed that to be in breach of copyright.
One immediate effect of that was that the audience Kevin & Mur had jumped from around 600 to more than double that, so thank you UStream for sending people our way. More on that later. The other immediate effect was a storm of protest on Twitter.
Lots of people were muttering about “fair use”. Actually, folks, that should have been irrelevant. When Kevin and I ran Events in Glasgow in 2005 I spent a lot of time emailing Hollywood studios to get permission to use the clips. (Many thanks to Craig Miller for his invaluable professional assistance with that.) Chicon should have done the same thing, and should have included information about the webcast. So unless something went badly wrong behind the scenes (I have asked Kevin to check, but whoever updated Wikipedia says permission had been granted) UStream pulled the feed because we showed clips that has been provided to us by the studios for the express purpose of being included in that feed.
How could this happen? Well, like all other social networks, UStream views its content providers as disposable. There are millions of them, after all. I’m pretty sure that the account Chicon had with them did not rate contact with an actual human being. A software system will have detected that we were showing material that was under copyright and pulled the plug automatically. It was late on Sunday night, the day before one of the biggest public holidays in the USA. The chances of reaching an actual human being who could reverse that were practically nil. It is, I’m afraid, a hazard of using services like UStream.
Back in 2005, before UStream existed, Kevin and I were very keen to webcast the ceremony. We talked to providers, got costings, and put a proposal before our management (Vincent Docherty and Colin Harris). Based on the costs, they said no, which we expected. I did try to get sponsorship, but none of the publishers were interested so the idea was dropped. I’m sure that the same technology still exists. It is probably cheaper now, and cheaper in the US than in the UK. I suspect that Chicon could have got it done for under $5k.
What’s more, I know that they had some sort of video link set up between Chicago and Atlanta so that Dragon*Con attendees could watch the Hugos too. So I suspect that a lot of the technology that they needed was already in place.
Future Worldcons will need to consider this problem. It may be that there is some sort of paid account you can get with UStream that will allow you to clear a webcast with them beforehand. If not there will be other services that do let you do that, you just have to pay them.
In the meantime we’ll probably continue doing the CoverItLive feeds, if only for the benefit of people who don’t have the bandwidth to watch streaming video or who, like the visitor we had from China, are unable to access Twitter in their country.
Even that, however, has problems. CiL now charges for shows that exceed a certain level of viewership. Kevin cleared the budget for the expected audience, but when the UStream feed went down the floor of new people blew us past our pre-paid limit and Kevin tells me that about 250 people were unable to log on. Our apologies for that. We’ll hopefully be better prepared next time.
Also I think next time we’ll drop the automatic inclusion of the Twitter hashtags. It overwhelmed our coverage last night. I would have done it myself except I’m still in bad odor with a lot of people in WSFS so I needed Kevin’s permission, and CiL’s private message system that allows webcast staff to communicate between themselves went down half way through the show.
All of this would, I suspect, be a lot easier if individual Worldcons were more willing to cooperate with the Hugo Awards Marketing Committee. However, most of them are deeply suspicious, even with no involvement from me, and that makes Kevin’s life very difficult.