Preserving transformative video works

Rebecca Fraimow

National Digital Stewardship Residency, Boston, Massachusetts, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Digital content, particularly audiovisual material, sourced on the Internet is unlikely to remain usable and discoverable into the long term as a result of file corruption, format obsolescence, unreliable hosting sites, and insufficient metadata. In this overview, the risks to the material, the current preservation efforts being undertaken by remix communities, and suggested methods that creators of remix video can use to help their material survive into the next digital generation are presented.

[0.2] Keywords—Archiving; Fan community; Fan vid

Fraimow, Rebecca. 2014. "Preserving Transformative Video Works." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 17.

1. Introduction

[1.1] In the era that we glibly call the digital age, the combination of digital technology and widespread high-speed Internet access has fundamentally changed the way art and society interact. In the words of remix scholar Lawrence Lessig (2008), "Digital technologies have democratized the ability to create and re-create the culture around us." While this shift has led to a surge in transformative content across all mediums of work, an argument can be made that it is especially influential in the area of audiovisual art, which has historically required a high skill level and significant resources in terms of money, time, and equipment to create, manipulate, and distribute. In the past, availability to these resources has often been often restricted to commercial enterprises, resulting in a one-way cultural conversation without the possibility of audience interaction or response. Digitally stored audiovisual material, on the other hand, is infinitely replicable—and therefore infinitely able to be excerpted, edited, and reused without affecting the original source material. This allows almost anyone to do what journalist Julian Sanchez (2010) describes as "using our shared culture as a kind of language to communicate something to an audience," whether that something is a response to the original work or a new creation that builds upon its back. Droves of amateur creators such as fan vidders, culture jammers, AMV artists, and movie parodists are taking advantage of these new possibilities.

[1.2] None of this is news to regular readers of this journal. However, for archivists dedicated to preserving cultural history, the rise of remix culture brings up a different question: how is it going to be preserved? Left to its own devices, digital content sourced on the Internet is unlikely to remain usable and discoverable into what digital archivists call the long term. It is vulnerable to a variety of challenges: file corruption, format obsolescence, unreliable hosting sites, and insufficient metadata. Audiovisual material, with its complex file formats, presents an especially high risk of becoming rapidly outdated and unplayable. Works that have been uploaded to third-party sites on the Internet—the access method of choice for audiovisual remix—are particularly vulnerable, thanks to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which requires Internet service providers to take down content when formally notified of a claim of copyright infringement ( If that Internet service provider is the only place the content is hosted, a notice and takedown can effectually serve as the death warrant for a transformative work. Some audiovisual remix content survives simply on the basis of its popularity, being uploaded to different sites over and over again; as the maxim among archivists goes, "lots of copies keeps stuff safe" ( However, while these videos may remain available, there's no guarantee that the metadata surrounding them will be accurate, or that they will be presented in an appropriate context. Some remixes have managed to retain their presence on the Internet in some form or another for a decade or more, but many more have been lost—sometimes not only to viewers but also to their creators.

2. Archives and persistence of video

[2.1] The party line among archivists tends to be that "public institutions are best positioned to ensure the long-term preservation of high-value digital materials" (OCLC 2010). Trusting material to the experts is a nice idea that works perfectly well when everyone can agree that something is of high value. As far as most cultural gatekeepers are concerned, however, there is currently no canon of contemporary digital remix to be preserved, nor is there an existing public institution with a mandate to create one. Moreover, because of the complex rights issues involved, institutions are often reluctant to commit to the preservation of transformative works, especially when their right to provide access to the material may end up being in question. Transformative video creators, meanwhile, are cagey about the idea of entrusting their work to an institution that may attempt to assert control over it. Although it is theoretically possible for institutions to surmount these challenges, the digital preservation community has not yet had success in coming to grips with the problem of preserving remix video.

[2.2] Instead, transformative video creators themselves have taken some responsibility for making sure that remix video content remains discoverable and accessible. In many cases, these efforts take the form of digital repositories and community centers for transformative works that fit into a certain genre—much like physical public libraries, which, in addition to their primary mission as public repositories, also provide information, history, and a gathering space for the community. One of the earliest and best examples of a community repository for fan video is the site Anime Music Videos (, which was founded in 2000 when anime music videos—known as AMVs—first made the leap from analog to digital. The site's mission was first to provide a center for the AMV community and second "to make a database of every Anime Music Video ever made" ( Originally Anime Music Videos simply linked to videos on creators' own Web sites. However, in 2003, the site purchased its own server, congenially known as the Golden Donut, which gave creators the option to upload videos to the site itself, either as their primary copy for access or as a backup option in case their own site went down. Anime Music Videos runs on a membership model, with donations not requested but strongly suggested; it takes funds, after all, to run a server and keep a site running.

[2.3] Anime Music Videos still hosts a treasure trove of AMV content from the early days of digital AMV culture. Over time, however, many remix creators have moved away from the more private, community-centric model offered by community-owned servers such as the Golden Donut and gravitated toward YouTube, which provides easier, more widespread distribution of remix works. Currently most digital libraries for remix content function largely as digital listings, collecting or pointing back to works hosted on YouTube. Some of these exist within the YouTube infrastructure itself; one user account, titled "The Growing Repository of YJ," simply creates playlists of fan vids centered on the television cartoon Young Justice (2010– ), with the goal of allowing users "to find fanvids a lot faster than having to scour pages of youtube search results" ( Other sites, such as the Political Remix Video blog (, a collection of political remix video work curated by pop culture hacker Jonathan McIntosh, and The Trailer Mash (, a site of mash-up and parody trailers submitted by creators, present entries in their archive as embedded or linked YouTube videos while hosting their own contextual metadata about the works.

[2.4] However, there are a number of reasons why YouTube is not an ideal hosting services for remix video over the long term. YouTube's policies provide no official fair use safe harbor for transformative work, and many users have found their content summarily blocked and a strike added to their YouTube account when a DMCA complaint was filed. At a recent count, Jonathan McIntosh estimated that 15 or 20 percent of the videos he had collected on his Political Remix Blog had disappeared from YouTube in the time since he posted about them. "It's typically not a real copyright violation," he explains, "but typically it'll be a match and the video will be automatically removed, and people don't know so much about fair use and they won't try and contest it" (McIntosh 2013). Although the metadata that McIntosh has collected about the video remains, keeping at least a record of its existence, the content itself is no longer accessible; it may be permanently lost. McIntosh's personal archiving efforts therefore currently include a program on his computer that automatically downloads every video he "likes" on YouTube—an act specifically forbidden by the YouTube terms of service, although this ban is not generally enforced. If McIntosh has a copy of a deleted video in his personal digital possession, he can upload it again and use his own knowledge and resources to defend it against DMCA notices and takedowns. Still, for every video that has a fair use godfather like McIntosh, hundreds more are likely to disappear for good.

[2.5] From a preservation standpoint, there are also serious concerns with relying on YouTube as a primary source for maintaining material over the long term. When a work is uploaded to YouTube, the site creates a compressed proxy video that loses a significant degree of visual quality. The creation of the proxy video also strips any embedded metadata from the original file. This makes it much harder for a later researcher to go back and discover information about the video, such as the date when the video was created or the original file format, which could end up being crucial for contextualization or for long-term preservation (de Rham 2012). There's also the fact that YouTube discards the original uploaded content after making the proxy, so if the creator no longer has a copy, it's impossible to get anything back from YouTube except for the compressed derivative—and even that is technically against the site's rules to download, though tools to do so are readily available.

[2.6] Members of some transformative video remix communities, such as the vidding community, have started to move away from YouTube because of its high risk and low quality; a December 4, 2009, post on the "vidding" LiveJournal community, asking for recommendations for places to post a fan video "where it won't be fiddled with," reflects the community frustration. Other popular hosting sites for vids, such as Vimeo ( and Dailymotion (, have essentially the same risks for long-term preservation. Although YouTube is the higest-profile hosting site, and therefore the one that is trawled most often for copyright violations, all hosting sites will take down violating videos if they receive a complaint. Most streaming sites also create compressed derivatives for streaming and do not allow downloads of either the derivative or the original file; Vimeo, for example, only allows users to download their original source material with a paid Vimeo Plus account. The Internet Archive (, which has a commitment to maintaining long-term access and preservation of material, does allow for downloads of the original source, but the Internet Archive has never been popular with transformative video creators because of the relatively low Internet exposure videos hosted there receive.

3. The Dark Archive

[3.1] Although fan archivists have been successful at making fan video work findable and accessible, most repositories that source their videos from YouTube or other streaming sources will eventually have a serious problem with long-term accessibility. One promising potential solution is the Organization for Transformative Work's projected plan for a Dark Archive and for a Torrent Of Our Own, or TO3. The OTW already maintains the Archive of Our Own (, known as AO3, as an archival repository for fan fiction, hosting it on trustworthy servers, making it discoverable and accessible, and capturing relevant metadata. The ultimate goal of the TO3 is to avoid YouTube and other outside streaming sites altogether and integrate it into the AO3 to make transformative video works accessible from a community-controlled server that users can trust. The projected Dark Archive, meanwhile, would serve as a preservation backup to the more visible endeavors of the TO3 and AO3. If the AO3 acts as something of a library catalog for the accumulated output of fandom and the torrented vids are the access copies, the Dark Archive is the storage space where preservation masters are kept, designed only to be accessed in worst-case scenarios. This is the crucial archival feature that other community repositories currently lack.

[3.2] Although all material on the AO3 is currently user submitted, the OTW also has more ambitious plans for maintaining the Dark Archive as a comprehensive archive of vidding culture. Several conventions maintain libraries of works presented at their vid shows. Most notable among these is Vividcon (, an annual 3-day event focused solely on showing and discussing fan vids, which has a DVD library of over 150 items that are currently only accessible during the course of the con itself for attendees to sign out and watch in their rooms. The OTW hopes to partner with Vividcon and other conventions that may have similar libraries in order to digitally preserve their materials and include them within the Dark Archive.

4. Video survival strategies

[4.1] The Dark Archive is a promising project for the future. However, there are steps that individual creators of remix video can take to increase the likelihood that their videos will survive. Here's a short list of digital preservation tips for remix video creators.

[4.2] Upload videos to more than one location. Given the unreliability of YouTube, it is always a good idea to have at least one backup copy uploaded somewhere in case something happens. The Internet Archive is a good option for a backup location to store videos; it's unlikely to put them at risk of being pulled down for infringement.

[4.3] Always include as much information as possible everywhere a video is uploaded. This should include the creator handle or signature, the date it was created, and the sources that were used. The more information is added to the video's description, the easier it will be to distinguish between the original work and uncredited copies that people may post on YouTube or other streaming sites. It will also make it easier for people to watch it. Although creators are often concerned that putting information about the sources that they used will put them at greater legal risk, in fact, the more up front creators are about what they are doing, the more likely it is that they'll be able to win a fair use argument if the situation arises.

[4.4] Embed descriptive information in video files. This is especially important when a work is available for direct download—that way, it is possible to ensure that people will continue to have the right context for it and know where to give credit. If Adobe Creative Suite is used to create videos, the program includes an application called Adobe Bridge that allows creators to directly edit the metadata. There are also a number of freeware programs that allow embedding and editing of metadata; a good guide and tutorial are available at Video University (

[4.5] Keep track of original files. Video does take up a lot of storage space, but many people have lost their work permanently by uploading it to a streaming site such as YouTube, deleting their files, and then having their work removed from the site or their account suspended. Hanging onto the original files—and, ideally, keeping them in at least two different digital places, such as on a hard drive and on another piece of storage media—is a good way to prevent this from happening. Creators should make sure to check their saved files at least once a year to make sure that they haven't become corrupted. More information about how to maintain digital video files is available at the Library of Congress's personal digital archiving site (

[4.6] Use a trusted server to offer videos for download. Streaming sites are great for the short term, but they are susceptible to notice-and-takedown procedures, and they can change their terms of service or even shut down altogether with very little notice, taking the videos that they host with them. Hosting videos on personal servers for download is great for those who can manage it, but it can be expensive to keep paying for server space, and it also leaves the owners open to digital threats such as malicious hacking or distributed denial of service attacks. A better option may be for creators to work with friends or with a digital community to establish a central repository for their work at a trusted server. If videos are hosted on a server that is under someone's personal control or under the control of a community that understands the importance of remix video, then even in the event of legal threats the work is less likely to be lost. The creator has significantly more control over the situation and a much greater opportunity to take the necessary steps to preserve the content.

5. Works cited

de Rham, Rufus. 2012. "Embedded Technical Metadata." Preservation Week Presentation, April 4.

Lessig, Lawrence. 2008. "In Defense of Piracy." Wall Street Journal, October 11.

McIntosh, Jonathan. 2013. Personal interview, April 11.

OCLC. 2010. "Sustainable Economics for a Digital Planet: Ensuring Long-Term Access to Digital Information." 2010.

Sanchez, Julian. 2010. "The Evolution of Remix Culture." YouTube, February 6.