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Open Culture

Steven Starr is the founder and CEO of Revver, a video-sharing platform that uses Creative Commons licenses to help creators make money from their work. Revver attaches a short ad at the end of each video in its network and splits the resulting ad revenue with creators. The company uses CC licenses so that people can legally share the videos in the Revver network across the Internet.

A few weeks ago, Revver released the Open Revver API, which enables anyone, from individuals to major companies, to create an online video portal using the same tools that built Revver. In conjunction with this release, Revver posted a short video that shows how to build a Revver portal in just 42 seconds.

On another front, Revver has started enabling nonprofit organizations to leverage its open syndication platform as a viral fundraising technology. Creative Commons is the first organization to work with Revver to raise money by sharing videos. Check out our Viral Video Fundraising Campaign.

Creative Commons spoke with Starr to discuss Revver’s origins, its future, and the current state of user-generated video.

Creative Commons: Where does the name Revver come from?

Steven Starr: My first thought was reverence for the creator, but people have other ideas: revenue for file-sharers, revving your career, ideas like that. Revver’s mission is to deliver sustainability, to get you paid so you can develop your creativity further. Revver technology enables your video file to move freely across the Internet, generating revenue everywhere it goes.

CC: What sets Revver apart from other video sharing sites?

SS: Video Makers split ad revenue 50/50 with Revver, and if you share Revver video, you get 20% of the ad revenue off the top. Video Watchers get free video with unobtrusive endframe ads, and Video Sponsors target into an ever-growing content library without associating with infringing content. Our Video Patrol reviews every video entering the Revver library for infringement, hate speech or porn, and we work with Creative Commons to foster a community that understands creator rights. And unlike most other sites, we don’t play cat-and-mouse with the DMCA. It’s really disrespectful to the creator.

CC: Should amateurs really care about being paid?

SS: Hell yes. Look at the Clash, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Spike Jonze or any creator that ever made your heart pound. They were all amateurs; they had to fight like dogs to sustain their creativity in the early going. The influence of all these new online creators is wildly disruptive; genre, format and storytelling are being re-imagined with a different set of tools. We see online video as a new art form, these online creators are game-changers, and they surely need to get paid. They need recognition and resource.

CC: What do you think of the YouTube acquisition?

SS: It’s really great for online video, a total validation of the space. But current DMCA practices continue to throw creators under a bus, that problem gets worse every day, and this deal does nothing to solve that problem.

CC: What do you mean?

SS: Well, by the time you locate copies of your work and notify the site to take it down under the DMCA, more copies pop up and you have to start all over again. But should you lose income as sites leverage your creativity to scale traffic? Should sites refuse to police for illegal copies of your work unless you’re a strategic partner? Selling protection to those who can pay for it, while forcing small creators into a money-losing DMCA cat-and-mouse game is simply unfair.

CC: So how does Revver get the creator paid?

SS: It’s really simple, we attach dynamic ad insertion software to the video, and give it back to you. EepyBird, the creators of the Diet Coke and Mentos Experiment, processed their video through Revver and released it into the wild. Within weeks they received over six million views, and more than $35,000 in ad revenue. Of course, that’s a big hit, but we’re now getting lots of Revver creators paid. As our traffic and library grows, we imagine the day where any number of creators are able to make a living using Revver technology.

We also work with non-profits; Firefox asked us to build a contest engine that called out to their user base to create 30-second Firefox promos. It was a smashing success; they had hundreds of submissions and many, many millions of views. Creative Commons is about to start using our open syndication engine for fund-raising. There’s lots of ways to use Revver technology, we’re just getting started.

CC: How are the advertisers responding?

SS: Extremely well. Smart brands love interacting with the audience, and the really smart ones understand it’s better to sponsor authenticity then to try and replicate it. Our sponsors enjoy a real halo effect with creators; we expect a golden age of Internet sponsorship to emerge over the next few years. Creative development at agencies, studios, networks and labels may never be the same.

CC: You’ve said that Revver isn’t really another destination site. Can you explain that?

SS: Well, it’s important to note that the vast majority of Revver video views are happening in the wild, and not on our site. 88% of the Diet Coke and Mentos views happened on EepyBird’s website, 10% happened on our Sharer network, and just 2% happened on So it’s all about virality, and we don’t lose sleep over our Alexa ranking; most of the action is elsewhere.

And sure, video makers and sharers and sponsors and watchers come to Revver to develop collections, set up accounts, set preferences on content feeds. But again, we’re a totally open system, one that allows almost all of the activity to happen offsite. And the release of our open API allows anyone, from major companies to individuals, to build and maintain their own video-based communities elsewhere, using Revver technology.

CC: How does Revver use Creative Commons licensing, and what’s the response been like?

SS: When you upload to Revver, your video gets protected under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 license. This means people are free to share your video if they credit you as the creator, and they can’t change the video or make money off of it without your permission. Creators really get CC; they appreciate the flexibility of CC licenses. In a world where the terms of service for many upload sites give site owners free reign to edit or repurpose uploads however they like, it’s a step forward every time a new creator opts into the CC license.

The response has been just great; LonelyGirl15, Invisible Engine, AskANinja, Ze Frank, CuteWithChris, Doogtoons, and many other top line creators are now working with CC licenses via Revver. We expect to have over 100,000 CC-licensed videos in the library in a matter of weeks. It’s working, and it’s working well.

CC: What about free culture?

SS: We love remix culture, mashups, and the like, and if you’ve got bank, go ahead and make free stuff. But we spent time in the favelas after the iCommons Summit in Rio with creators earning barely enough to afford mini-DV tape to make shorts on borrowed digicams. Those creators would love to get paid. They should have the right to decide how their content is distributed online, and not see that decision made for them by someone else.

CC: What’s the history behind Revver?

SS: Experiences around developing talent and then as a creator made it clear that access was the whole story, and that very few people had it. So in 1999 we launched, riffing on the idea that the biggest vision might come from the smallest eyes. We thought we could leverage the entire Internet as a vast discovery platform. Creators from all over the planet sent us thousands of videocassettes to digitize and publish, and some of it was just fantastic.

To get the word out, we sent AntEye trucks out to a bunch of college towns with the word CREATE! emblazoned on the outside. We’d pull up, give curious kids digicams in exchange for their driver’s license, teach them to edit their video in the back of the truck, then publish it online. Our best creators, as rated by their peers, were given micro pilot budgets and exposure into a first look we’d set up with HBO. Yet bandwidth was just insanely expensive, and our wild-eyed business model assumed that we’d discover the next Chris Rock or Robert Rodriguez or whomever, and then build a kind of a people’s MTV out of the content flow.

That’s all starting to happen now; we were just far too early. So just as AntEye started collapsing, a group of us started building out LA Indymedia. Indymedia burst onto the scene in November of ’99 as an independent media apparatus during the Seattle WTO. A group of us, inspired by their success, came together in LA to build an Indymedia Center for the 2000 Democratic National Convention.

We rented the 6th floor of Patriotic Hall, set up open computer stations, a community radio station, a convention newspaper, and in collaboration with Free Speech TV, a television studio and satellite uplink. Democracy Now! jumped in, as did 1400 other journalists from all over the world. We built a full-blown, multi-disciplined media operation in a matter of weeks. Danny Schechter, who’d delivered the crisis of South African apartheid into the global conversation in the 1980’s, was asked to host the first night.

Just as we were about to flip the switch, a thoroughly misguided LAPD claimed a bomb scare and shut us down. The bomb scare was absurd, clearly a mythology, so we put the Chief of Police’s home phone number onto the LA Indymedia homepage as a complaint line. We then got a call from LAPD to remove his number, and we agreed to do so in exchange for being left alone. And so the following night, just as Rage Against the Machine hit the stage outside of the Staples Center, we went live, with Danny hosting to over 12 million homes in our Echostar footprint. An amazing moment, to say the least.

That the LAPD tried to shut us down seems predictable in retrospect. Indymedia equals media empowerment, and this type of tech-savvy alternative media initiative was not only unprecedented, but a couple of years ahead of the proliferation of blogs and vlogs and social networks. And this may well have been a first, the first time anyone tried to shut down a domestic television station.

To many of us there, collaborative journalism really came into its own that night, presaging future commercial efforts like OhMyNews in Korea or Current in the States. But media empowerment can be quite threatening to those who are used to being in control of the message, as evidenced several days ago by the cold-blooded murder of Indymedia journalist Brad Will in Oaxaca, Mexico. The price one pays for having an ‘un-embedded’ point of view seems to increase by the hour. A couple of weeks ago, Bush signed into law a bill expanding his rights to declare martial law, to order militarized police round-ups and detention of protesters. And so the question for the online video community is: who’s to protect media-makers under such circumstances?

At about the same time and along similar lines, Ian Clarke had launched Freenet, a global, decentralized anti-censorship P2P network with, among other attributes, the potential to eliminate the bandwidth costs we’d seen at AntEye. So we partnered, organized a 501c3 around Freenet, and formed Uprizer to develop software inspired by Freenet architecture. This time we had a business model; a content delivery network, but then Hummer Winblad found itself in the crosshairs of the Napster lawsuits. P2P became the devil, and our investors urged us into the enterprise software business. I knew nothing about enterprise software so I quit, and then a friend from the Pacifica Foundation asked me to manage KPFK-FM.

At 112,000 watts, KPFK’s likely the strongest community radio signal in the US, and the idea was to see whether we could transition the station to a more grassroots version of its community mission. So we threw open the doors to a community who’d been picketing the station for years, blew past our fundraising targets, implemented listener-generated programming initiatives, and restored financial control back to the station. As expected, we saw massive grassroots creativity around us, but the price for many unpaid creators was predictable, a never-ending struggle for resources.

So in 2002 I started working on ChangeTv, a digital cable hybrid; AntEye meets KPFK meets MTV. The goal was to filter user-generated video off the Internet and onto cable, and most importantly, get our creators paid. We had John Perry Barlow and Jack Healey from Amnesty International advising us, but 18 months of trying to raise $65 million in a post-bubble environment just about broke me. So I morphed ChangeTv into an online creator marketplace and brought in a team of consultants; Ian Clarke and his brother Andrew joined over the summer, Oliver Luckett joined right after the November ’04 elections. Oliver’s the inspired former head of the network at Qwest; he’d just brilliantly teamed with Norman Lear to deliver over a million online voter registrations.

Andrew and Ian set about building for musicians, early proof of ChangeTv’s recommendation engine, and Ian started developing, an open-source http-based P2P network designed to cover bandwidth. Oliver began solving problems associated with tracking files across the network, and collaborated on a new business plan. The Participatory Culture crew out of Worcester, Mass. joined in to build websites for Dijjer and Indy, and we all drove into the desert for a brainstorming marathon.

After that, things moved quickly; I raised more seed capital, asked Oliver, Ian, and Andrew to join fulltime in March of ’05, changed the name to Revver, and raised venture capital from the syndicate who’d funded Skype. And now we have an amazing group of people from all walks of life throwing in together; it’s just a great place to work and we’re all really committed to what we’re doing.

CC: And tell us about your history. What’s your personal background?

SS: I started out as a high school volunteer at WLIR-FM, the legendary New York rock station, then worked my way through college as a DJ, a short-order cook, a CBS Records rep and a concert promoter. Bob Marley was just a massive hero of mine, and a friend and I were somehow able to convince William Morris to route his tour through Wisconsin. Just weeks before he recorded Babylon by Bus in Paris, Bob rolled into Madison and blew the roof off of the Orpheum Theater. I had conversations with him around those two shows that pretty much changed everything for me. So when I finished college, I headed straight for William Morris in NY looking for him, and got offered a job in the mailroom.

I spent the ’80s learning new media, and working with Bob’s family after he died. New media in those days meant upstart networks like MTV, selling audiobooks for clients like Andy Grove and launching a home video division. Later, my focus shifted to young creators; indie filmmakers, writers and playwrights like Ang Lee, Larry David, Tim Robbins and many others. I ended up running the NY film operation, but I was way too curious to stay there. So I left in 1991 to write and direct my first film, Joey Breaker, featuring Bob’s daughter Cedella and a very young Philip Seymour Hoffman. And then I spent the 90’s as a filmmaker, TV producer, and working with Rita and the kids on a feature about Bob.

CC: What happened with the film?

SS: Well, Cedella always said that making a film about her Dad wouldn’t be easy and she was right. Bob may be the most widely known musician on the planet – a force of nature from Angkor to Windhoek to Delhi to Rio – the New York Times says he’s the most influential artist of the second half of the 20th century. But Warners’ was looking for a rock ‘n roll movie, think La Bamba, and they never saw how lucky they were to have a chance at something greater.

Rather than make the wrong film, we walked away. But I have no regrets, and not a day wasted. All of it led to AntEye, which led to Revver, and we’re now helping creators everywhere find an audience and sustain their creativity. And the prospect for empowering creators on a global scale strikes me as a better tribute to Bob’s worldview than any movie about him ever could be.

CC: What’s next in store for Revver?

SS: Well, we just rolled out Revver 1.0 a couple of weeks ago. Last week, we offered up our open Revver API, which allows any software developer anywhere on the planet to build a website on top of Revver’s platform. This is a really big step for us. We also just rolled out a flash container that allows your video to keep monetizing even after they get ripped from streams by sites like KeepVid. And we’re adding community tools and major media partnerships to generate opportunities for Revver creators. Lots more about this and a bunch of other initiatives soon, and a whole new rev of the site in a couple of weeks.

CC: Any parting thoughts?

SS: Not really, except if we were having any more fun we’d get arrested. It’s incredibly inspiring to do this work; we’re insanely grateful for the chance to build this business, and it’s really starting to prove itself. All that’s left is a callout to creators everywhere: Revverize it, set your video free!

Posted 30 October 2006