Free video hosting sites like YouTube, Yahoo! Video, and Daily Motion are enabling creators to share video instantly with millions of viewers around the world. A new report from the Center for Social Media takes a close look at these user generated sites, and finds that there is much more at stake than the SNL and Daily Show clips often referenced in the usual Viacom v. YouTube debates on copyright infringement.

Recut, Reframe, Recycle shows that far from simply uploading content, more and more users are remixing prior works to create new (and often surprising) works of transformative creativity. Users are borrowing from film, television, and pop culture at large to create parodies and satires, commentaries, pastiche, quotations, as well as archives of important work that cannot be shown due to copyright restriction. By illustrating each category with some of the best examples of user-generated content from the past few years, the study attempts to clarify "the difference between quoting for new cultural creation and simple piracy."

The study also finds that this lively new form of participatory popular culture exists in a precarious grey zone of uncertainty. The legal tradition of fair use protects many uses of copyrighted material to create new works, but the public remains largely unsure of its fair use rights -- in fact, a recent study found that ignorance about the limits of copyright law was hindering efforts at media literacy education. Meanwhile, large corporate content providers continue to use DMCA takedown notices in ways that (whether deliberately or inadvertently) are censoring many fair uses off the Internet. (EFF has published a “best practices” guide that would protect fair uses from being caught in DMCA takedown dragnets.)

The authors of the study point out that these new forms of creativity are not going away, and are, in fact, harbingers of a new medium:

The effervescence of this moment at the dawn of participatory media should not be mistaken for triviality. The practices of today’s online creators are harbingers of a far more interactive media era. Today’s makers -- feckless, impudent, brash, and extravagant as they often are -- in fact are the pioneers of an emerging media economy and society. Recognition of the importance of fair use, within the copyright law toolkit for cultural creation, is both prudent and forward-looking for those concerned with maintaining an open society.

The study recommends the establishment of a “blue ribbon panel” to establish a set of “best practices” principles — not unlike the Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use which the Center for Social Media also spearheaded last year.