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Facebook's freebooting problem, explained

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Facebook's biggest problem today is caused and supported by how you consume video — well, you and your family, friends, colleagues, and several of your favorite viral comedians. It's called freebooting, and it might soon rope you in, even though you might never get caught doing it. And if you're the person freebooting? You're enemy number one.

On Thursday, Facebook announced it is expanding its "video matching technology" to a small set of video creators to fight against freebooting. What exactly is freebooting, anyway, and why is it so important to Mark Zuckerberg? It all comes back to you.

Friends with ad revenue benefits

How much should Facebook care about other people's problems? It has two philosophical paths to consider. It could turn into a rebellious, freewheeling Napster of video, ignoring the revenue models or copyrights of creators (a position in which YouTube once found itself). Or it could fall in line with wide-ranging demands from video creators who want protection from unauthorized uploads. It's a difficult strategy call for Facebook to make and implement without hiccups, since the platform is home to more than a billion monthly active users.

People who make money producing online videos want to see their work shared everywhere, especially on the largest social network in the world, right? The short answer is: sometimes. Many creators have voiced frustrations about users who upload videos without permission.

Slate's Will Oremus interviewed one unhappy creator, Destin Sandlin, whose videos were used by others on Facebook:

Two days after he published his tattoo video on YouTube, Sandlin got a message from one of his subscribers who had seen it on Facebook. It turned out his video was a viral smash there, too. In fact, it was spreading even faster on Facebook than it was on YouTube, with more than 18 million views in the first two days alone.

The problem was that Sandlin had never posted it to Facebook, and the version of it that appeared in millions of users’ News Feeds overnight wasn’t his. Rather, a British lads’ magazine calledZoo had apparently downloaded (or "ripped") his video from YouTube, edited it to strip out references to Sandlin and his SmarterEveryDay channel, and posted the edited version on its own page, using Facebook’s native video player. It was an instant sensation, garnering millions of views and a raft of new followers for Zoo’s page. Sandlin, who puts some of the revenue from his YouTube videos toward his kids’ college fund, got nothing. (Zoo’s parent company, Bauer Media, declined to comment for this story.)

More online videos, more online problems

Unauthorized uploads are so common on Facebook, it has its own trendy name: freebooting. Last year, Daily Dot's Rob Price called the practice an "epidemic." Let's be clear: Freebooting is explicitly against user rules. Creators are not always aware (or notified) when it happens, though, and infringement can be hard to track down. Facebook scans videos in an effort to limit abuse, lets creators report issues, and suspends repeat offenders, but uploading outlaws remain, aggravating producers.

One particularly unique challenge for Facebook in connecting creators to content is tied to its real-name policy; it can't authenticate content unless it recognizes what users call themselves, which is not always their birth name. Adding to the confusion, amateur video bloggers may not understand all of Facebook's rules, even if they rightfully demand a video is taken down.

Many creators want Facebook to kill freebooting outright, but it's not a simple problem. It will take time for Facebook to come up with a solution that both users and creators mutually accept; there are no guarantees such a solution exists, anyway. In this sense, producers find themselves in a similar position as music record labels were in with Napster, coincidentally co-founded by Sean Parker (Facebook's first president), or even the position Viacom once held against YouTube.

How you share all those cat videos, publicly and privately, will be increasingly monitored on the social network you're most likely to use today.