As you may recall, back in 2007, entertainment giant Viacom sued YouTube for $1 billion, arguing that it was nothing more than a piracy site. Of course, Viacom's case faltered, badly, when it was later revealed that over 100 of the videos it listed as infringing had been... uploaded by Viacom employees as part of a marketing strategy. That act alone showed that even Viacom employees recognized the site had "substantial noninfringing uses." After seven years of battling it out in court, the two sides finally settled last year. However, it does seem noteworthy that Paramount Pictures, the major Hollywood movie studio that is owned by Viacom just announced that it had posted over 100 of its own movies for free on YouTube in their entirety.
This is important for a variety of reasons, but most of all it shows that, once again, when legacy entertainment firms learn how to embrace new technologies, rather than sue them, they're better off. Legacy entertainment companies have basically tried to sue or kill every new technological innovation that somehow challenged new business models. They sued over radio, television, VCRs, cable TV, MP3 players, DVRs and internet video. And yet, once they learned how to use each of those, they realized how great these platforms were in helping to distribute, to promote and to monetize their works.
If Viacom had succeeded in its lawsuits and killed off YouTube, would these movies be available for free online today? I think most people would agree the answer is "no way."
This is a big part of the reason why I get concerned about attempts to shut down businesses that some insist are "nothing but piracy sites." The VCR was "nothing but a piracy tool." The MP3 player was "nothing but a piracy tool." Radio was "nothing but a piracy tool." And YouTube was "nothing but a piracy site." And yet... given the chance to grow and to innovate, these services show that they are successful because they're providing a better product. Suing them out of existence takes away opportunities like this, where companies learn that they can benefit from these (often free!) services to better promote, distribute and monetize their own works. It's easy to think that something that is often used for infringing works in the early days is never going to be anything useful or legitimate, but that ignores the history of innovation in this space. Every new innovation originally looked like a piracy tool. Until it no longer did. Perhaps, rather than trying to kill off every new service, Hollywood should take a lesson and realize that maybe it should be figuring out better ways to embrace them early on, rather than many years later.
Digital Music News has an unfortunate story that we've heard too many times before: that of an independent musician successfully building a following... only to do a deal with a major label and see it all come crashing down. What's interesting is that the artist, Terra Naomi, was willing to lay out all of the details. It's worth a read, as it's a story that is pretty common. That is not to say that signing a major label deal is necessarily a bad thing. For some artists it may be the right decision. But the way that major labels work is that you'll only get enough attention for the label to determine if you're "the next big thing" where all its revenue will come from for the next few years... and if things don't seem to be going that way, you'll be pushed aside quickly. The standard stat given is that 90% of major label deals "fail." That does not mean they are not profitable for the label. The way RIAA accounting works, the labels can make out like a bandit on many of those record deals, while the artist gets hung out to dry. That appears to be the case with Naomi as well.
She points out that she was one of the first artists to build up a large fanbase solely based on her YouTube and MySpace accounts. Here was her most popular song, Say It's Possible:
In the article, she talks about how she was connecting with fans and giving them a reason to buy. She talks about using YouTube to directly communicate with her fans, answering their questions, sending them messages and the like. And then, Universal Music came calling. And she made the very reasonable decision to sign with them, noting that while she had just pressed her own EP and quickly sold 5,000 of them in the first month they were available, she was still in debt, and a $250,000 advance was hard to pass up. It's easy to mock this decision, but you're probably not the one sitting there in debt with $250,000 on the table. That's why it's so tempting and why so many artists jump at the opportunity. It's not a crazy decision to make -- but it may present long term challenges, which is exactly what Naomi discovered.
Despite attracting attention for her success on YouTube, the label basically (1) had no understanding of YouTube and (2) recommended that she stop connecting with her fans. In other words, the exact opposite of what artists need to be doing in this internet connected era:
Contributing further to their feelings of betrayal was the mandate that came from my team at the label. They needed me to be “less accessible” and more untouchable. All these kids on YouTube saw me as an equal, as “one of them” – did I want to be a YouTube star, or did I want to be a rock star? They threw down the gauntlet, and there was no question in my mind. I wanted to be a rock star.
I handed over my mailing list and social media logins to the record label. I trusted this team of professionals to grow it into something much bigger than I could ever hope to create on my own. I backed off, disappeared, focused on writing songs and hanging out with the “right” people rather than connecting with my fans and the community I’d grown to love and depend on, prior to signing my deals. I figured I’d play by their rules for a little while, build my career into something even bigger, and reunite with my community once the label was satisfied with my rock star status.
Not surprisingly, it didn't work out that way. The label also pushed her to make a more commercial album, which she hated:
The producer I worked with told me we only had one shot, and I needed to make the album he wanted to make – with its “radio-ready” production – and once I had a few hits, I could make any album I wanted. So I made the album he wanted to make, and things didn’t happen the way he said they would. Instead of the big commercial radio success that would give me the freedom to seamlessly transition into the music I truly wanted to make, I had a big commercial flop (I think we sold something like 25,000 albums), an album I didn’t like, and I’d wasted what could have been the biggest opportunity of my life. The exposure I built independently on YouTube was more than the record label ever did for me, and I couldn’t believe I’d been so willing to hand it over for a longshot gamble on mainstream stardom.
And, of course, once she finally got out of the major label system, the audience that she had originally connected with, but forsaken, had moved on. As she notes:
My biggest takeaway from this time was a lesson in authenticity. It’s tempting to listen to people who want to change us, even just a little bit, and steer us in a direction that isn’t authentic. It’s easy to doubt ourselves, especially when we’re just starting out. We think people with more experience know better than we do about what’s best for us, and it’s simply not the case. We fall for the hard sell, the glitz and glamour, but for every massive major label success, there are dozens of disappointments and disastrous failures.
This isn't a huge surprise. For well over a decade we've been pointing out stories of successful artists who have built up huge fan bases online -- and the one factor that shows up again and again and again is authenticity. That's a huge part of the whole idea of connecting with fans. Actually being authentic is a great way to connect with like-minded fans, but it has traditionally gone against the cookie-cutter model of the major labels (though, to be fair, some are finally starting to figure this out, if only way too late).
Either way, Naomi's story is a good read, and should be worth thinking about for others who are tempted by the deals presented to them when they're first building a following. Put it in the group with the stories about RIAA accounting that further explain how a big advance may not actually be so big once you understand all the details.
There's an old saying that those that lie down with dogs will get back up with fleas. One modern derivative of that maxim might be: if you bend over backwards for copyright censors you will become censors yourself. No better example of this can be found than YouTube's ContentID system, the automated platform that scours YouTube videos looking for uploads of identical audio or video content and proactively takes them down in favor of the original content owner. That's how it works in theory, that is. In practice, ContentID appears to be most useful in taking down fair use content, trolling legitimate creators, and even silencing political speech, supposedly the most revered thing in this great Republic of ours. It's typical in these cases for the automation to be blamed, but that's a mistake. The real blame lies with Google for implementing such a flawed system, with the entertainment industry and trolls for abusing it, and with all of us for simply accepting it. Everyone, in other words, is to blame.
I came to that conclusion recently, when Hugh Hefner used Mario Bros. to show me how silly all of this is. The whole thing started when a Kotaku writer uploaded a video of some Mario Maker levels that play themselves.
Two days ago, I uploaded a video to YouTube. It featured some awesome automatic Mario Maker levels that basically play themselves. Today, I was dinged with a copyright notice for that same video. The claimant was none other than...Playboy? I’m serious. I didn’t get flagged by Nintendo. Rather, I got flagged by Hugh Hefner’s operation.
Playboy, obviously, does not own Mario. It did not create Mario Maker. It did not build the level on display in my video. And yet my video was still flagged. What gives?
What gave was that Playboy had uploaded a video that contained one of the same levels in the other video. Because these levels play by themselves, rather than being played by a human, the videos have the exact same content. So, faster than a Mario Brother running with the 'B' button mashed down, ContentID flagged Kotaku's video as infringing and sent out a notice. Other users likewise had videos of that Mario Maker level flagged in favor of Playboy, which I am very much certain doesn't own any of the IP surrounding Nintendo's center-piece franchise. Most, like the Kotaku writer, submitted disputes which were resolved quickly. Playboy, for its part, has been active in getting all of the claims dismissed...
...which is entirely besides the goddamn point. ContentID was dinging uploaders for copyright violations in an automated fashion, with no checks, on content owned by an unrelated party. That doesn't make any sense. And, in some cases, there can be actual harm done.
When you get flagged, the claimant has a whole 30 days to review your dispute, during which your video typically stays up while also making money for the claimant. Sometimes, the claimant will even be able to block the video from being viewed entirely. Even if the dispute gets dismissed, it might mean waiting days if not an entire month for the motion to actually get through. In the meantime, any YouTuber who supports themselves with ads and just wanted to show off the level to their subscribers, or perhaps added some good commentary to the footage, will lose revenue (as well as gain an unnecessary headache.)
Personally, I'd love to see "An unnecessary headache" as the epitaph on ContentID's gravestone.
YouTube and the music collection society GEMA have been at war for many years. Five years ago, I was at Berlin Music Week and it was one of the major points of discussion. YouTube was blocking all music videos, since GEMA insisted that YouTube should pay rates on par with digital sales (iTunes) rates for each play. Musicians I met with in Germany were furious at GEMA's obsessive control over their own music -- with one musician even showing me how he had an official website that GEMA was aware of, and an "unofficial" website his band showed to fans, which offered up free music (something GEMA refused to allow). The various court rulings in the case have been a mixed bag with some finding YouTube liable for user uploads, and even saying that YouTube needs to put in place a keyword filter.
German Courts also haven't been too happy with YouTube's custom message for (accurately) explaining why so much music is blocked in Germany. While YouTube and GEMA have tried negotiating a deal (as collection societies in basically every other country have done), in Germany it never seems to happen.
The latest ruling, in one of the key court cases is an appeals court ruling that upholds the lower court ruling saying that YouTube is not liable for infringing uploads by users and doesn't have to proactively search for infringing content. This is good. But, the court also appears to suggest that YouTube's ContentID is not enough -- and suggests it supports a sort of "notice and staydown" kind of system:
“However, if a service provider is notified of a clear violation of the law, it must not only remove the content immediately, but also take precautions which ensure that no further infringements will be possible.”
While that may appear reasonable at first glance, in practice it's a mess. The only way to even try to do that is to over-aggressively block any and all uses of that particular work -- which will undoubtedly lead to overblocking. Song playing in the background? Blocked. Parody video? Blocked. Algorithm not sure? Blocked.
A more detailed ruling is expected in a few weeks, but this seems like a mixed bag.
Another day, another big tech company doing things wrong. Matthew Lush is apparently a super popular YouTuber, who has been on the platform since 2005 (yes, a decade ago). His YouTube name was "Lush" which makes sense, given that's his name. But along comes Lush Cosmetics, and YouTube apparently just hands his channel over to the company. That's ridiculous enough, but it gets even more bizarre, when reporters asked Google to explain:
Google said it was "sympathetic" to Mr Lush's situation and that the decision was made by an algorithm.
Oh, come on. Yes, Google pointing to its algorithm making decisions makes sense when it comes to issues at scale around things like search results. But blaming taking away someone's username on an algorithm just seems ridiculous.
And then there's this:
[Lush Cometics] told the BBC it had not requested the change but would not say if it would give the address back.
Okay. So let's just work through this:
Matthew Lush registers his YouTube name "Lush" in 2005.
He spends years building up a massive following.
A decade later, a cosmetic company that did not ask for it is simply given Matthew Lush's popular YouTube username, based on "an algorithm" deciding this.
And Google insists there's no way to fix this.
Really? Yes, I know some people fear that science-fiction future in which the giant AI in the sky makes algorithmic decisions about what's best for us ("I'm sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that"), but I hadn't thought we were quite there yet. Because we're not.
It seems likely that what's missing from the BBC story is that there was some sort of naming conflict brought on by the various attemps to shift around YouTube naming conventions, integrate it with Google+ and all of that. In the end, there was probably some sort of conflict with two "Lush" usernames, and Google's "algorithms" gave the account to the cosmetics company instead. At least that's my interpretation of this statement:
Google said its algorithm decided which address Lush Cosmetics was given, based on data from YouTube, Google+, its search engine and other sources.
But if that's the case, at the very last, Google could be a lot clearer and upfront about it. And it seems to be a mess brought on by the company's own decisions about its username conventions. To play it off as just "well, those nutty algorithms again, nothing can be done" seems pretty ridiculous.
As you may have heard, DARPA, the wonderful government agency folks who helped bring us the precursors to the internet and self-driving cars, held a giant robotics competition this weekend, known as the DARPA Robotic Challenge, or DRC. It was full of amazing robots -- though everyone seems focused on the ones that fell over, despite the amazing advancements in robotics that were on display.
One bit of "robotics," whose best work is not on display, is the robotic nature of YouTube's ContentID copyright censorship. If you go to check out the six hour YouTube video of the DRC Finals Workshop on YouTube you'll get to witness everything, but not hear a damn thing. Because, apparently, there was a copyright-covered song playing somewhere in the background, YouTube muted the whole damn thing:
So, yup, rather than learning about the latest advancements from our soon to be robotic overlords, we'll just silence everything so someone's copyright isn't infringed because it was playing quietly in the background at a daylong event.
Well, well. We had just been discussing Konami getting YouTube to take down a video it didn't like, one produced by YouTuber Super Bunnyhop, which discussed a supposed breakup between the gaming giant and famed game-producer Hideo Kojima. The excuse for the takedown was apparently something like half-a-minute's worth of game footage from the Metal Gear Solid franchise, a significant portion of which was simply one game's title screen. YouTube, with its content-makers friendly notice/takedown policy, complied with the takedown. Often times, that would be the end of the story. We'd all cry foul, complain that copyright sucks, and head on to the next story.
This time, however, is different. Super Bunnyhop challenged the takedown with a notice to Google and Google responded by both reinstating the video and warning Konami to stop screwing around. After reinstating the video, here is what YouTube sent to Konami.
It's a standard notice Google sends out when takedowns aren't on the level, but it's still nice to see. Not only does the letter let Konami know YouTube is concerned over the bullshit takedown, but it also helpfully gave the company a quick primer on fair use. There is some polite language requesting additional information should Konami still want to claim the video to be infringement, but any cursory glance ought to be enough to know that the whole thing falls under fair use. YouTube also sent Super Bunnyhop a notice that the video had been reinstated.
"This may be the first time YouTube has quickly stepped in and reviewed a bogus copyright claim for a gaming video,” [Super Bunnyhop] said to me over email. “If that’s the case, then my situation may be breaking new ground, and this could be good news for YouTubers everywhere.”
Yeah, there's actually no real new ground being broken here. YouTube sends these letters out all the time and it reinstates videos like this when the takedown is crap as well. That said, every fair use victory is a step in the right direction and it's worth reminding everyone out there that the takedown doesn't have to be the end of the story for non-infringing videos. Sometimes intellectual property is used for censorship and there is little anyone can do about it. But that's not always the case and it's important to fight it wherever possible.
Back in 2010 we wrote about rapper Dan Bull's excellent "Death to ACTA" song and video, which is a parody of Jay-Z's "Death of Autotune." In 2011, we further wrote about the MP3 of that song (which Bull distributes willingly on file sharing platforms) being taken down from Mediafire due to a questionable takedown request. Now, years later (well after ACTA is pretty much long dead), Dan's discovered that his video on YouTube was just silenced due to copyright claims.
He wondered what it was about and discovered two claims on the video -- one being ridiculous, with the other being merely questionable.
The ridiculous one is the claim about Bigg Brass's song, "Death of Fake Rapperz". That one, like Dan's, uses the backing track from Jay-Z's "Death of Autotune." The actual track that Jay-Z sampled is "In the Space" by Janko Nilovic and Dave Sarkys. It's likely that Jay-Z licensed that track (though he's run into legal trouble at times for failing to license some tracks). If anyone would have a claim over Bull's track then, it would likely be those guys. Here, it appears that Bigg Brass is working with the big digital distributor, The Orchard, who didn't even bother to figure out that Bigg Brass was using a sample of his own and just went hog wild stupidly going after others' music. The Universal Music Group claim is slightly more reasonable, but only slightly. Again, the actual music is not Jay-Z's but Nilovic's and Sarkys' and they don't appear to be the ones complaining.
At the same time Jay-Z has been quite public about his support for artists remixing his tracks into other songs saying that he's "honored" when it's done. It may be that Jay-Z doesn't hold the copyright for DoA, but even so... it seems like a pretty weak claim to go after Dan Bull. And, of course, you can find a ton of other videos that use the same backing track for their own songs. Here's one. And another. And another. And another. And another. And another. And another. And another. And there are a lot more. I'm just getting tired of cutting and pasting.
And none of those other ones are silenced.
Just Dan's. It almost makes you wonder if Universal Music has... a political reason for trying to silence Dan's songs, such as the fact that it mocks an international agreement that the recording industry was highly supportive of. And they say copyright isn't used to censor free speech...
This seems to happen every political season. When he was a Presidential candidate, John McCain got annoyed at YouTube taking down political videos based on copyright claims. During the last Presidential election, a Mitt Romney TV ad featuring President Obama singing an Al Green song was taken down via a copyright claim. And now, 2016 Presidential candidate Rand Paul has discovered that his announcement speech from Tuesday morning has been taken down. This wasn't a DMCA takedown, but yet another case of YouTube's over-eager ContentID doing the job:
Apparently the announcement kicked off with an anti-Wall Street country song, "Shuttin' Detroit Down" by John Rich, whose copyright is held by Warner Music Group.
Of course, Rand Paul has been sort of a mixed bag on copyright. He was one of the first Senators to speak out against SOPA/PIPA in 2011. But, not long after that, he and his father Ron put out a weird internet freedom "manifesto" that appeared to argue for much stronger copyright laws, and which argued that the public domain was an evil "collectivist" threat that was against basic property rights.
Of course, it would be nice if this little incident led candidate Rand Paul to support fixes to copyright law and the DMCA, but as some are pointing out, assuming this really was a ContentID takedown, changes to the DMCA wouldn't much matter -- since ContentID is a private solution, outside of copyright law. That said, it was put in place, in part, to help keep YouTube from getting sued over copyright claims, so a fixed DMCA might lead to a better ContentID offering. Unfortunately, despite a history of copyright and ContentID being abused against political candidates, it still hasn't really resulted in them taking a real platform stand on the problems of copyright law today and how it impacts free expression. It's unlikely that Rand Paul is going to really take a stand on this, especially given that weird manifesto from a few years ago.
from the depends-on-your-point-of-view-apparently dept
Last week there was a bizarre and ill-informed post by music industry lawyer Chris Castle -- who has a weird infatuation with the idea that Google must be pure evil -- in which he tried to argue that because YouTube wasn't able to take down propaganda videos showing ISIS atrocities fast enough, that Google was providing "material support" for terrorism. As Castle notes:
Google's distribution of jihadi videos on Google’s monopoly video search platform certainly looks like material support of terrorists which is itself a violation of the federal law Google claims to hold so dear. (See 18 U.S. Code §2339A and §2339B aka the U.S. Patriot Act.)
Of course, there are all sorts of problems with the Patriot Act, including its definitions of "material support of terrorism," but to stretch the law to argue that providing an open platform and simply not removing videos fast enough (the videos in question all got removed pretty rapidly anyway, but not fast enough for Castle) is somehow "material support for terrorism" is flat out crazy. It stems from the same sort of confused logic that Castle has used in the past, arguing that Google and others must magically "just know" what is infringing and what is not -- suggesting a true lack of understanding about the scale of offerings like YouTube and the resources needed to sort through all the content.
We were inclined to simply dismiss Castle's nuttiness to the category of "WTF" where it belongs... until at a conference earlier this week, a DOJ official, John Carlin, who holds the role of assistant attorney general for national security, appeared to suggest that anyone helping ISIS's social media campaign could be guilty of "material support" for terrorism:
John Carlin, the assistant attorney general for national security, told a cybersecurity conference in Washington on Monday that officials could try to blunt ISIS’s violent PR operation by essentially trying propagandists as terrorists. He suggested the Justice Department could bring prosecutions under the law against providing material support to a terrorist organization. His remarks were believed to be the first time a U.S. official has ever said that people who assist ISIS with online media could face criminal prosecution.
Carlin was asked at the conference whether he would “consider criminal charges” against people who are “proliferating ISIS social media.”
His answer: “Yes. You need to look at the particular facts and evidence.” But Carlin noted that the United States could use the material support law to prosecute “technical expertise” to a designated terrorist organization. And spreading the word for ISIS online could count as such expertise.
Carlin seems more focused on someone tweeting a link to ISIS propaganda or something along those lines, which would raise significant First Amendment issues, but his comment about "technical expertise" could certainly be turned around and put upon YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and other providers of social media tools. That would create a huge mess, and open a Pandora's box that would undermine one of the key premises of the internet that has made it so successful.
Is the DOJ really looking to undermine the entire internet, just because some terrorists have figured out that it's a good way to get out their message?
Meanwhile, if you want to see just how far this sort of ridiculous thinking takes you -- at the same time that people like Castle and Carlin are arguing about how YouTube may be supplying material support for terrorists, YouTube was deleting videos that were being used to document ISIS war crimes. YouTube has been rushing around trying to take down all kinds of ISIS and other terrorist content for a while now -- ever since then Senator Joe Lieberman demanded that YouTube block terrorist videos. And, the end result is that important channels that catalog and archive evidence and documentation of war crimes are being taken down. And, this is not the first time this sort of thing has happened.
When you start accusing these platforms of having some sort of liability (potentially criminal liability in the form of "materially supporting terrorists" for merely providing an open platform that anyone can use, you are more or less guaranteeing that important content, such as that which documents war crimes and atrocities gets banned as well. Is that really what Castle and Carlin are looking to do?