At a recent holiday gathering, a friend turned to another friend, whom I'll call Downloader, and said, 'I need a new show.' Downloader thought for a second, then recommended Let the Right One In, a Swedish indie vampire movie. 'No,' my first friend said. 'I need a show, a TV show.' Downloader, after another moment's thought, said: 'OK then, Freaks and Geeks, and you don't even have to BitTorrent it. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube.' I checked out Freaks and Geeks too and can recommend it as an hilarious take on American high school. It's centred around a girl caught between being a 'mathlete' and her new stoner friends. It's like Dazed and Confused, but adapted for TV - in this case by NBC - which cancelled it two-thirds of the way through its first season in 1999, even though it went on to win an Emmy. But wait a minute. If the show is from a major US network, how is it that it's still on YouTube? The wild and woolly days of streaming internet TV ended in 2007. Remember all the annoying e-mails with links to clips of Saturday Night Live? Those clips only existed before big networks began threatening lawsuits against YouTube and other video hosting sites. In 2006 Google bought YouTube, and a year later filters for copyrighted material were introduced. The filters required complainants to provide examples of copyrighted material to check against uploads. In other words, networks had to tell YouTube which shows couldn't be put online for free. Many were left off the lists. Freaks and Geeks, the brainchild of actor-writer-director Paul Feig, was clearly ahead of its time, especially when it came to American network TV. Watching it, you get the snappy editing and verisimilitude that pay-movie channels didn't pioneer until a few years later - think of HBO series such as The Wire and Deadwood or Showtime's Weeds (Feig directed three episodes). The show features episodes about a party when the parents are out of town, amusing motifs such as the dudes who casually idolise Led Zeppelin, and bigger themes such as teens' struggle to form an identity. The year after NBC killed the show, it sold the syndication rights to Fox. In 2004, a DVD boxed set came out. And then it turned up on YouTube. There is still plenty of copyrighted material on YouTube. You might say a division is taking place. What stays online does so because it's no longer commercially valuable. Despite their self policing, YouTube and other video sites continue to act as a don't-ask-don't-tell loophole to copyright law, and one that advocates of the public domain can be happy about. In US and EU law, copyright lasts for 95 years after publication or 70 years after the author's death, whichever is longer. Under that regime, no film or book has passed into the sphere of free public use since 1923. It has been estimated that around 75 per cent of the cultural production of the past century is both out of print and not for sale. I'm not sure why Freaks and Geeks went up online, but I suspect it was because it was facing this abyss and someone wanted to keep it alive. In the current commercial copyright environment, it seems that YouTube turned into its final court of appeal.