YouTube Downloads – The Quickening

Often times the most innocent questions spawn a great deal of research for me. For example, I was asked recently what was the best way to download a youtube video to use in a project. It’s a pretty easy question to answer from a technical standpoint. I’ll answer it as part of this post. However, the question allows me to revisit a topic near and dear to us in the Teaching and Learning Technologies division. The idea of repurposing and transforming existing media to tell digital stories.

I’ve gone down this path before after a comment on a previous post led me to look into YouTube’s terms of service. The question is about the breaking of the terms of service for YouTube videos. A few things have changed about the YouTube service in the last three years since, but what has remained constant is the fact that the technology behind watching videos at their site is still “progressive download” and there is a whole raft of tools dedicated to exploit that fact.

So first the tools, because that is probably the most likely reason that you would be reading this. Let me first say that there is some secret sauce in YouTube’s implementation of progressive download technology. I believe it has to do with balancing the idea of using a technology that provides the best experience, but uses a few tricks to hide the video file that is downloaded to your computer.

My favorite and most consistent tool over the last few years is the Video DownloadHelper plugin for Firefox. The big advantage with this method is that, in my experience, it works the most consistently with the most number of videos available on YouTube. Relatively recently, YouTube has moved away from Flash format video and toward MPEG-4 video. The reason being that iOS devices don’t support Flash and the push of HTML5 compatible formats has pushed h.264 technology to the forefront. Video DownloadHelper will allow you to see both the FLV and the MP4 format files for a given video. The downside to this method is that Firefox might not be your browser of preference, and there is the plugin that needs to be installed. It isn’t terribly difficult to set up, but I do recognize that I only use Firefox when I want to grab a YouTube video.

Another tool that I have used for acquiring YouTube videos is MPEG Streamclip. While MPEG Steamclip’s raison d’être is to edit MPEG video, it has a built-in YouTube downloader that allows you to immediately begin to trim a video down to what you need for your project. It’s downside is that it doesn’t always allow you to get the video you want. It will display a “File open error”.

This would have been the space where I talked about a cool new tool called Adapter. It HAD a built-in web browser that allowed you to surf to your video and then would queue it up to start the download. Well, the latest Flash download (11.4) broke this program’s functionality to such an extent (it only would download videos that were 720p and 1080p mp4s), that they have pulled that feature indefinitely. A nice screencast would have gone here.

So what of the ethics of downloading YouTube videos? Well, the caution is that most of the videos on YouTube have full “all rights reserved” copyrights. You can’t obtain YouTube videos and do with them as you wish. There is a Creative Commons (CC) licensing system, but it’s rare that the average uploader takes advantage of this. What has changed over the last few years is that you can select CC licenses as your default copyrighting choice when you put a video up on YouTube.

The paradox is that YouTube’s terms of service states that “unless you see a “download” or similar link displayed by YouTube on the Service for that Content”, you aren’t allowed to download. However, the technology is based on the browser technology downloading the given video every single time. It is part of the definition of “progressive download”. Now in browsers such as Google’s Chrome, and Apple’s Safari, the secret temporary storage is quite well hidden. With Firefox though, it can be proven that the video is saved in a cache folder and therefore the user is breaking the terms of service every time by watching the video.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.


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