Copyright Kings are Judge, Jury and Executioner on YouTube

Editor’s Note: Fair use of copyrighted material is not unlawful, but censorship is. Read more here. Speaking of monetizing….have you ever thought of monetizing YOUR rights? Check out Voodoo Dolls of the Elite part 3.

Arstechnica On Friday, a YouTube user named eeplox posted a question to the support forums, regarding a copyright complaint on one of his videos. YouTube’s automated Content ID system flagged a video of him foraging a salad in a field, claiming the background music matched a composition licensed by Rumblefish, a music licensing firm in Portland, Oregon.

The only problem? There is no music in the video; only bird calls and other sounds of nature.

Naturally, he filed a dispute, explaining that the audio couldn’t possibly be copyrighted.

The next day, amazingly, his claim was rejected. Not by YouTube itself — it’s unlikely that a Google employee ever saw the claim — but from a representative at Rumblefish, who reviewed the dispute and reported back to YouTube that their impossible copyright for nonexistent music was indeed violated.

Back at YouTube, eeplox found himself at a dead end. YouTube now stated, “All content owners have reviewed your video and confirmed their claims to some or all of its content.” No further disputes were possible, the case was closed.

Whether caused by a mistake or malice, Rumblefish was granted full control over eeplox’s video. They could choose to run ads on the video, mute the audio, or remove it entirely from the web.

Content ID Used and Abused

On Sunday night, Reddit took notice. Within hours, the thread was on the homepage, commenters were freaking out and, to his credit, Rumblefish CEO Paul Anthony was fielding questions in an interview until 2:30 a.m.

His argument: One of Rumblefish’s Content ID reps made a mistake by denying the dispute, and they released the claim on Sunday night. “We review a substantial amount of claims every day and the number is increasing significantly,” said Anthony. “We have millions of videos now using our songs as soundtracks and keeping up is getting harder and harder.”

This is the latest in a long series of foibles or outright abuses of YouTube’s Content ID system. Content ID was intended to help copyright holders manage the chaos of YouTube. They’d provide copies of their audio and video for analysis, which would then algorithmically match newly uploaded videos. If a match was found, rightsholders could automatically block the video or, increasingly, claim money from video advertising.

Content ID’s monetization was a huge boon for copyright holders. Uploaders could keep their videos online, while copyright holders profited from the creative reuse of their work.

But there has been a dramatic rise in Content ID abuse in the past couple of years, wielded in ways never intended. Scammers are using Content ID to steal ad revenue from YouTube video creators en masse, with some companies claiming content they don’t own deliberately or not. The inability to understand context and parody regularly leads to “fair use” videos getting blocked, muted or monetized.

Bypassing the DMCA

The problem is that media companies and scammers are using Content ID as an end run around the DMCA.

With the DMCA, the process works like this:

  • A rights holder files a claim against a video with YouTube.
  • YouTube immediately takes the video offline.
  • If there’s a mistake, the uploader can file a counter-notice.
  • YouTube will restore the video within 10 to 14 business days of the counter-notice, unless the rights holder files a lawsuit.

It wasn’t perfect, by any means, but it was fairly balanced. Disputes could always be appealed, and both parties were given equal power. Importantly, if claimants lied about owning the copyright to the material in question, they could face perjury charges.

By contrast, the current Content ID system tips the balance far in favor of the claimant.

Rumblefish never needed to prove it was the copyright holder, but was still given ultimate control over the video’s fate. Uploaders can dispute claims, but the only people reviewing claims are the Content ID partners that filed the claim in the first place, who are free to deny them wholesale.

When you hire the plaintiff as the judge and jury, the defendant’s outlook isn’t good.

A Simple Plan

The solution is simple: If a copyright holders want to pursue a disputed Content ID match, they should file a DMCA claim. That’s the only way to guarantee their rights, and make the copyright holders legally responsible for telling the truth.

In fact, this is exactly how YouTube says Content ID “fair use” claims should work. In practice, this doesn’t appear to be true any longer. Content ID partners, of course, can file a DMCA notice at any time. But why bother if they can reject the counter-claims themselves?

(Preferred partners like Universal Music Group can go a step further and block videos directly without filing a claim.)

This problem has been on YouTube’s radar for at least two years, but it’s only getting worse as unsavory companies discover this nascent business model. Claim copyright on media you may or may not own, and let Content ID do the rest.

By letting Content ID partners have the final word, and not trusting their own users, YouTube is violating its trust with its community and damaging fair use in the process.

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