You get what you pay for. Maybe.

Google's pricey YouTube buy misses the point.

In the world of professional sport, the New York Yankees are perhaps the greatest example of the curious idea that money buys everything and nothing. In the dot-com world we can now add Google to that pantheon.

With its $1.6 billion YouTube buy, Google netted itself the biggest player in the video sharing space. Despite all that money — reminiscent of the 'Net's halcyon days of the late '90s — it's far from clear Google will get what it paid for.

The handwringing has so far centered around straight revenue plays: How will YouTube make money serving up videos for free? Will the service be sued out of existence? They're valid questions but they miss the more fundamental one: Are the millions of users who make YouTube what it is by virtue of their contributions going to stick around for the new 'GooTube'?

What may prove YouTube's undoing is not the enforcement of copyright, per se, but how the media and other companies that plan to take advantage of stepped up policing could destroy what attracted users to YouTube in the first place. If that goes, the users go and then who will advertisers be talking to?

For example, Fox (a company so well known for attacking copyright infringers online that it has spawned its own meme — getting “foxed”) may on the one hand deny users the right to post Fox-owned content but then on the other hand post the content itself — in packaged, formal, “targeted” ways beneficial to its marketing aims. So maybe there will be nothing from House available except what Fox deems fit to post (or allow to be posted) at a time of its choosing. But the users want it now. And they want a snippet of minutes 5-7, scene 3 from season 1 because there was something about it that was really funny or interesting or for some weird, Internet-only reason has become a phenomenon.

Immediacy and unlimited selection — two things media companies do not typically provide to consumers because it undercuts revenue strategies — is exactly what the “old” YouTube provides to consumers. Take that away and what do you get? A media property serving up content on its own terms. But those already exist. They're called NBC and ABC and CNN and Clear Channel and MTV and so on. So why is YouTube worth $1.6 billion again?

This isn't even to speak of more arbitrary decisions being exercised by content owners within or without the context of copyright/royalty agreements. Will the coveted “featured videos” slots on the front page be sold to advertisers who want to flog a particular set of videos? What happens if an advertiser wants space on the front page but doesn't want to be seen next to some objectionable, user-posted content (such as Iraq war videos that were recently pulled by YouTube for being “inflammatory”)? What happens to, say, clips from news broadcasts that show funny/racy announcer gaffes, but which the copyright holder feels depicts the broadcaster in a bad light? Will those be pulled as well? Given that it's the content owners who will be paying the freight under an ad/sponsor revenue model, the answer would seem to be yes.

In fact, it's not yet entirely clear how YouTube plans to manage copyright enforcement. The company has described the technology it plans to roll out at the end of this year as an “advanced content ID and reporting architecture” system, but how it will work in practice remains a mystery. And neither YouTube nor partners like Warner Music, with whom it has recently signed a royalty-sharing agreement, are telling.

Will the system flag offending content based on length of copyrighted material or some other metric? How will it even detect material if that material is, say, buried in a Web 2.0 “mashup” of content? Will users be obliged to have their uploads sit in queues awaiting human vetting, rather than the instantaneous posting currently available? And at 50,000 or more uploads per day, won't that bring YouTube to a crawl?

It may yet turn out that in its focus on EBITDA Google has critically underestimated the significance of “Internet culture” — all things verite, amateurish, in poor taste, in no taste, directionless, utterly random, (largely) free — and how it as a result stands mostly in opposition to the whole of “corporate culture.” Business is going to have to find a better way of monetizing YouTube than trying to remake the site in its own image.

Indeed, YouTube may be one of the first Internet-age examples of a business opportunity where the commercial players that want to take advantage of it will actually have to play by the consumer's rules instead of vice versa.

It's that or $1.6 billion worth of nothing.