"So when I read ten years from now about this cool debate among Democratic candidates that featured video questions from goofy but serious viewers, including a snowman concerned about global warming, and people were watching it on YouTube for weeks afterwards: how will I find it? Who's looking after the snowman?
This is an important question. Clearly, future scholars will not be able to understand the upcoming election without access to YouTube videos, blog posts and other ephemera. In this particular case, I believe there are both business and technical reasons why Provost O'Donnell can feel somewhat reassured, and legal and library reasons why he should not. Follow me below the fold for the details.
Here is the pre-debate version of the snowman's video, and here are the candidates' responses. CNN, which broadcast the debate, has the coverage here. As far as I can tell the Internet Archive doesn't collect videos like these.
From a business point of view, YouTube videos are a business asset of Google, and will thus be preserved with more than reasonable care and attention. As I argued here, content owned by major publishing corporations (which group now includes Google) is at very low risk of accidental loss; the low and rapidly decreasing cost per byte of storage makes the business decision to keep it available rather than take it down a no-brainer. And that is ignoring the other aspects of the Web's Long Tail economics which mean that the bulk of the revenue comes from the less popular content.
Technically, YouTube video is Flash Video. It can easily be downloaded, for example by this website. The content is in a widely used web format that has an open-source player, in this case at least two (MPlayer and VLC). It is thus perfectly feasible to preserve it, and for the reasons I describe here the open source players make it extraordinarily unlikely that it would not be possible to play the video in 10, or even 30 years. If someone collects the video from YouTube and preserves the bits, it is highly likely that the bits will be viewable indefinitely.
But, will anyone other than Google actually collect and preserve the bits? Provost O'Donnell's library might want to do so, but the state of copyright law places some tricky legal obstacles in the way. Under the DMCA, preserving a copy of copyright content requires the copyright owner's permission. Although I heard rumors that CNN would release video of the debate under a Creative Commons license, on their website there is a normal "All Rights Reserved" copyright notice. And on YouTube, there is no indication of the copyright status of the videos. A library downloading the videos would have to assume it didn't have permission to preserve them. It could follow the example of the Internet Archive and depend on the "safe harbor" provision, complying with any "takedown letters" by removing them. This is a sensible approach for the Internet Archive, which aims to be a large sample of the Web, but not for the kind of focused collections Provost O'Donnell has in mind.
The DMCA, patents and other IP restrictions place another obstacle in the way. I verified that an up-to-date Ubuntu Linux system using the Totem media player plays downloaded copies of YouTube videos very happily. Totem uses the GStreamer media framework with plugins for specific media. Playing the YouTube videos used the FFmpeg library. As with all software, it is possible that some patent holder might claim that it violated their patents, or that in some way it could be viewed as evading some content protection mechanism as defined by the DMCA. As with all open source software, there is no indemnity from a vendor against such claims. Media formats are so notorious for such patent claims that Ubuntu segregates many media plugins into separate classes and provides warnings during the install process that the user may be straying into a legal gray area. The uncertainty surrounding the legal status is carefully cultivated by many players in the media market, as it increases the returns they may expect from what are, in many cases, very weak patents and content protection mechanisms. Many libraries judge that the value of the content they would like to preserve doesn't justify the legal risks of preserving it.