Over the past year, Janelle Gunther occasionally captured video with her Canon PowerShot digital camera: An elephant parading through city streets to the Ringling Bros. circus, her friends on stage during an improv dance show.
But the clips simply sat on her computer unwatched — until last weekend, when she began adding them to Vimeo, one of several sites to emerge for sharing amateur footage.
There's no shortage of sites willing to accept such video, and once issues of revenues, copyright and ease of use get sorted out, the sharing of personal video promises to become as commonplace as photo-sharing is today.
"For the past six months or so, a lot of these sites have been popping up," said Jakob Lodwick, Vimeo's founder. "It went from being none to there being new ones every couple of weeks."
Credit the digital video revolution.
Most digital cameras sold since 2004 can shoot video, and so can newer models of cellular phones, said Jill Aldort, an InfoTrends consultant who specializes in Internet imaging trends. CVS Corp. even sells disposable video cameras.
"People have video all over the place, coming out of their ears," said Cynthia Francis, chief executive of Reality Digital Inc., which runs the ClipShack sharing site. "People are looking for a way to share that."
Now they needn't necessarily burn DVDs or carry around cameras to show friends their latest video oeuvre. Thanks to faster Internet connections and better online video technology, even search engine leader Google Inc. is getting into the game.
Now that it's easier to reach her audience, Gunther expects to shoot even more video, just as she shot 10 times as many photos once she started sharing them on Yahoo Inc.'s Flickr.
"I finally had a place to put them," the 30-year-old architect said of her photos.
YouTube.com, a leading site, had more than 3 million visitors in December, nearly tripling its visitation in November, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. YouTube Inc. says its users have been sharing 20,000 new videos a day and watching some 10 million daily.
One clip on YouTube is of a 12-year-old scoring a touchdown, another is of a woman burping in front of a mirror. One young man captured himself skateboarding on a treadmill.
Others are more carefully produced and edited, even set to music.
Steve Silvestri, a local television news cameraman in Bates City, Mo., began sharing his library of personal videos on Christmas Eve, many featuring his travels on Amtrak. One clip got more than 10,000 views within two weeks — gaining a wider audience than he did from burning 50 DVDs for family and friends.
"It's the greatest thing since the Internet," Silvestri said. "Everybody wants to have an audience for their stuff."
Budding filmmakers and musicians can promote themselves, too, but people generally capture everyday moments without ever thinking they'd become Internet sensations, said Chad Hurley, YouTube's co-founder.
Despite the growth, video-sharing remains largely a province of the tech-savvy.
Many people don't know their digital cameras can shoot video or can't be bothered transferring or trimming it.
Though video-sharing is available to higher-end paying subscribers of Smugmug Inc.'s photo service, it's not the main driver, said Chris MacAskill, the company's co-founder.
Photos, on the other hand, can be shared as is and many photo-sharing sites even let users crop, remove "red eye" and perform other minor editing.
The early video sites differ in another key aspect.
With the exception of Flickr, the popular photo-sharing sites tend to promote sharing within a circle of friends and family, generally by sending links. Most of the video sites, however, encourage sharing with the world. They make the task easy by grouping video by most watched or highest rated, and they let users tag clips with keywords so others can search for all clips on bowling, for instance.
And while photo-sharing sites typically sell prints and photo-imprinted mugs, there's no commerce counterpart for video, which can consume 10 times as much storage and bandwidth — even after compressing files and reducing resolution.
So video sites are exploring a range of revenue models, including advertisements, which rely on huge audiences. After all, video ads already precede segments at news Web sites like CBS.
"But the question is, `Are those same strategies going to work when users are viewing user-generated content?'" ClipShack's Francis said.
A few services, particularly newer ones aimed at moms reluctant to share family footage with strangers, are relying entirely on subscriptions.
Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Snapfish, for instance, charges $25 a year for the video-sharing service it unveiled this month, even though its photo service is entirely free. Both emphasize closed communities — one must already have the link to watch.
And then there's Revver Inc., which relies on ads but shares revenues with users who submit video.
"It is a new frontier," said Steven Starr, Revver's chief executive. "The migration of video onto the network is upon us, and the rules of that migration are being worked out as we speak."
Intellectual property owners also must grapple with these services, some of which are littered with skits from "Saturday Night Live" and music video segments.
As studios and networks expand online sales of already-aired shows through services like Apple Computer Inc.'s iTunes, look for them to more aggressively pursue violations.
"This is an evolving landscape," said Rick Cotton, general counsel for NBC Universal. "As we get into partnerships ... to make material legitimately available, we are increasing and escalating our efforts to police against the unauthorized and extensive infringing of materials."
(MSNBC is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)
The video-sharing sites promise to remove copyright materials — as well as pornography — when requested, but they also say that some such clips are actually authorized or tolerated for their promotional value.
Another gray area involves music playing in the background.
"If you are lip-synching a Prince song, do you owe Prince royalties to that?" asked Trevor Wright, chief executive of the Sharkle Inc. video site. "The industry needs to and will begin to figure these things out."
Entertainment lawyer Mark Litvack said copyright owners may not go after every use in amateur movies, but video that becomes an overnight sensation likely will attract attention. Fair use, he said, does not always protect even home movies.
But there's no doubt content providers see value in sharing. Just this month, CBS Corp. began offering some shows through Google, which lets amateurs and professionals alike charge viewers for video, with Google getting a cut.
There's also great interest among advertisers.
A news site can produce only so much video on its own, Wright said, but user-generated content is limitless, driven by personal ego: "People want to share things they've done, places they've been, creations they've made and so forth."