Mr. Google, take down this content

Google’s default response to possible copyright infringement on YouTube is surprisingly mechanical and far from perfect.  Consider TMZ’s recent report on the hapless Justin Bieber and his ubiquitous YouTube music videos:

Justin Bieber has been victimized by a brand new cyber-enemy … an enemy who found a way to get every single one of JB’s official music videos REMOVED from YouTube….YouTube has a yank first, ask questions later policy when a copyright claim is made — so they simply pulled the videos off the site … until the dispute is resolved.

Of course, there are myriad problems with such a system, as Ernesto over TorrentFreak elaborates:

YouTube describes its Content-ID anti-piracy filter as a state-of-the-art technology, but those who look closely can see that in some cases it creates a huge mess. The system invites swindlers to claim copyright on other people’s videos and make money off them through ads. It automatically assigns thousands of videos to people who don’t hold the copyrights, and its take-down process appears to be hugely biased towards copyright holders.…

Content-ID allows rightsholders to upload the videos and music they own to a central ‘fingerprint’ database. YouTube will then scan their site for full or partial matches, and if there is a hit the copyright holder can automatically take it down, or decide to put their ads on it.

Although the above sounds like a fair and honest solution, not everything Content-ID does goes to plan.…One of the problems appears to be that people with bad intentions can claim copyright on videos they have nothing to do with, and even run ads on them. In the YouTube support forums there are hundreds of posts about this phenomenon…[although] most of the “misattribution” problems seem to be the result of screwups and technical limitations.

As Ernesto notes in passing, there is supposed to be an opportunity to counter a takedown request under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).  Unfortunately, Google’s Content-ID system doesn’t work this way, as Patrick McKay of FairUseYouTube.org elaborates:

Instead of requiring copyright owners to file a formal DMCA notice in response to a Content ID dispute, thus allowing users to invoke the DMCA counter-notice process, YouTube allows copyright owners to somehow “confirm” their copyright claim through the Convent ID system and re-impose whatever blocks were originally in place through Content ID. In this case, a message will appear on the user’s “View Copyright Info” page for that video saying, “All content owners have reviewed your video and confirmed their claims to some or all of its content.” After this, as far as I can tell, there is absolutely no way for the user to file a dispute and get their video restored.

Certainly, Google is under no legal obligation to provide video distribution services to anyone who asks for them no matter how contentious the content’s ownership.  At the end of the day, Google is a business, and dealing with the minutia of these copyright ownership disputes is expensive.  It’s obvious why Google wants to bow out of the fight as early (and cheaply) as possible.

Nonetheless, it is extremely troubling that Google is silencing some users’ speech without allowing them to defend (at their own risk and expense) legal rights provided under the DMCA.

YouTube’s copyright school

In an apparent bid to prevent one-time copyright infringers from becoming two-timers (or more), YouTube has created a 4 minute and 39 second copyright school on its website, as explained on the official YouTube blog:

Because copyright law can be complicated, education is critical to ensure that our users understand the rules and continue to play by them. That’s why today we’re releasing a new tutorial on copyright and a redesigned copyright help center. We’re also making two changes to our copyright process to be sure that our users understand the rules, and that users who abide by those rules can remain active on the site.

If we receive a copyright notification for one of your videos, you’ll now be required to attend “YouTube Copyright School,” which involves watching a copyright tutorial and passing a quiz to show that you’ve paid attention and understood the content before uploading more content to YouTube.

Ray Dowd over at the Copyright Litigation Blog is not a fan, noting that Google:

  • fails to mention the existence of the public domain;
  • states that “[i]f you are uncertain as to whether a specific use qualifies as a fair use, you should consult a qualified copyright attorney”; and
  • fails to mention the Constitutional purpose of copyright law.

I have to agree with Ray.  The video’s section on fair use (direct link) is particularly egregious.  Unlike the rest of the video, this section adopts the sped-up vocal “style” often adopted at the end of radio commercials to breeze through legal disclaimers (e.g., “Sweepstakes only open to U.S. residents 18 or older…”)  How is this even attempting to educate and inform?

Far from providing a balanced view of copyright law, YouTube’s clear, bottom-line message is this:  Don’t remix or even approach the fair use line.  This is certainly one vision of copyright law, but there are others.  I am reminded of Christina Mulligan’s excellent blog post last June that looked at contemporary copyright law through the lens of Fox’s hit show Glee:

The absence of any mention of copyright law in Glee illustrates a painful tension in American culture. While copyright holders assert that copyright violators are “stealing” their “property,” people everywhere are remixing and recreating artistic works for the very same reasons the Glee kids do — to learn about themselves, to become better musicians, to build relationships with friends, and to pay homage to the artists who came before them. Glee’s protagonists — and the writers who created them — see so little wrong with this behavior that the word ‘copyright’ is never even uttered.

Lawrence Lessig makes the related point that such recreations benefit society, pointing to John Phillip Sousa’s early-twentieth-century fear that recorded music would eventually displace amateur performance entirely.

Google is taking a lot of heat from copyright owners these days, and it’s hard to blame them from trying to stave off any accusations of infringement that might eventually stick to Google itself.  Nevertheless, I don’t think their frenetic, one-sided “educational” video is the best solution.

Going rogue

Wired’s Nate Anderson has a great write-up over at Ars Technica of the “Legitimate Sites v. Parasites” hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee today, and it’s not looking good for Internet intermediaries:

[T]he general mood of the hearing was that tough new steps must be taken. As Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) asked [Immigration and Customs Enforcement director John] Morton during his questioning, “What change in the law would allow you to pursue everyone?”

In his written testimony before the committee (PDF), Kent Walker, Google’s Senior VP and General Counsel noted that such an all-inclusive approach would be impossible and counterproductive:

When it comes to offshore rogue sites, no one should think that imposing additional obligations on search engines, social networks, directories, or bloggers beyond the DMCA [Digital Millennium Copyright Act] will be a panacea. If the site remains on the web, neither search engines nor social networks nor the numerous other intermediaries through which users post links can prevent Internet users from talking about, linking to, or referencing the existence of the site. These links or references will themselves appear in search results, and will enable users to reach the site. Simply put, search engines are not in a position to censor the entire Internet, deleting every mention of the existence of a site. If a rogue site remains accessible on the Internet, relying on search engines to try to make it “unfindable” is an impossible endeavor. [emphasis added]

I recommend reading Walker’s full comments for a robust defense of why the notice-and-takedown immunity provided by the DMCA is essential for innovation.

Additional coverage by Politico, Techdirt, CNET, TorrentFreak, RIAA Blog

Searching for a safe harbor

TorrentFreak reported a few days ago that Google has filed an amicus brief in the appeals case against torrent search engine isoHunt:

Google has been keeping an eye on the legal battle between the MPAA and isoHunt as last week, out of nowhere, the company unexpectedly got involved in the motion for summary judgment appeal. The search giant, which has always stayed far away from these types of cases, filed an amicus cuiae brief (third party testimony) at the Appeal Court.

“This cases raises issues about the interpretation and application of the safe-harbor provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 512 et seq. (“DMCA”) and common-law rules governing claims for secondary copyright infringement. Google has a strong interest in both issues,” Google’s counsel writes.

Talk about understatement.  You can read Google’s 39-page brief for yourself over on Scribd — thanks to PaidContent for posting.

TechDirt posted additional commentary late yesterday suggesting that Google’s stance in the isoHunt appeal is mostly about its own ongoing litigation with Viacom:

Google argues that as long as YouTube took down any content it received a takedown notice on, it was in compliance and protected by safe harbors. Viacom leaned heavily on the IsoHunt ruling, to claim that the DMCA doesn’t just cover takedown notice responses, but also requires a response to “red flag” infringement.

However, Google knows that the IsoHunt ruling is basically the only legal precedent out there that reads the DMCA in this manner. So, from Google’s perspective, dumping that reasoning is key. So its amicus brief still argues that IsoHunt is guilty of contributory infringement, a la the Grokster standard, but not because of red flag infringement.

The last thing Google wants is to be liable for copyright infringement under the DMCA every time there is a “red flag” that infringement is taking place; that would be the end of Internet search engines as we know them.

Of course, Google’s business strategy isn’t merely to file amicus briefs and hope for the best; the search giant has also recently taken proactive steps to reduce its liability, including turning off autocomplete results for torrent-related searches.  I guess this is what the Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator (IPEC) meant by “dialogue”, as detailed in her recent report:

the IPEC has facilitated and encouraged dialogue among the different private sector Internet intermediaries that contribute to the dynamic nature and functioning of the Internet, including payment processors, search engines and domain name registrars and registries. These entities are uniquely positioned to enhance efforts of rightholders and law enforcement to combat infringing activity and help reduce the distribution of infringing content in a manner consistent with our commitment to the principles of fair process, freedom of expression and other important public policy concerns. We believe that most companies share the view that providing services to infringing sites is inconsistent with good corporate business practice and we are beginning to see several companies take the lead in pursuing voluntary cooperative action.

I’m not sure how “voluntary” this really is — or whether “fair process” and “freedom of expression” accurately describes a “dialogue” written under a Damoclesian sword of statutory copyright damages and domain name seizures.  But I will agree that ruinous lawsuits and seizures are “inconsistent with good corporate business practice”.

Hat tip to Keith Lowery for sending me the link to the original TorrentFreak story.

Taking enforcement to the next dimension

Get ready for the next avalanche in copyright infringement lawsuits:  3D printing!

[L]ast week, Ulrich Schwanitz figured out how to print the “impossible” Penrose Triangle,” a well-known optical illusion. He released a video of the shape and challenged others to see how it might have been done. 3D modeller Artur Tchoukanov promptly figured it out, designed a 3D shape that accomplished the same thing, and uploaded his shape’s specifications to Thingiverse, a repository for 3D designs….Schwanitz sent Thingiverse a DMCA notice — essentially, a threat to name Thinigverse as a party in any copyright lawsuit against Tchoukanov unless Thingiverse took the shape down immediately.Whereupon Schwanitz became the inventor of something much more substantial than a 3D Penrose Triangle — he became the inventor of copyright threats over open 3D repositories. A weekend’s worth of acrimony followed — with lots of speculation about the copyrightability of Schwanitz’s design and questions about whether Tchoukanov was guilty of violating any copyright that vested in the design, and further questions about the ethics of copying designs and the ethics of sending copyright threats to Thingiverse.

As Cory Doctorow later notes in his BoingBoing post, Schwanitz has withdrawn his litigation threat, but legal wrangling of this new, third-dimensional sort is certainly not going to stop anytime soon:

[A]ggrieved optical illusion creators don’t have anything like the political and legislative clout of other potential 3D printing complexifiers. Imagine what happens when some magistrate in Alabama decides that Thingiverse is liable for hosting 3D models of sex toys (illegal in AL) and issues a bench warrant for Bre Pettis’s arrest. Or when someone from Shapeways shows up at CES in Vegas, only to discover that the state Drug Enforcement Agency has issued a warrant on the basis of a bong design available at Shapeways, violating the state’s strict anti-drug-paraphenalia laws. Or someone from i.materialise gets an EU extradition request from Germany because someone’s printed a detailed, historically accurate toy soldier with a swastika armband, violating Germany’s strict laws against Nazi paraphernalia.

And just wait until someone creates a printer that can reproduce patented pharmaceutical compounds or Monsanto’s patented life-forms! Now there are a couple of villains with a lot of resources to throw at making the whole Internet’s life miserable in order to squeeze an extra 0.05% into the quarter’s bottom line.

As the Economist’s cover study just two weeks ago indicates, the 3D printer world is already here.  As that report suggested,

Good ideas can be copied even more rapidly with 3D printing, so battles over intellectual property may become even more intense. It will be easier for imitators as well as innovators to get goods to market fast. Competitive advantages may thus be shorter-lived than ever before.

CBS infringes…itself

From the left-hand-doesn’t-know-what-the-right-hand-is-doing department, CBS appears to have infringed its own copyrighted works:

A CBS reporter embedded a video of one of their own pieces of content onto a CBS-owned web property. Only to have it soon yanked down by lawyers (or lawyer-bots – AKA auto-DMCA patrol).

Click on over to the original piece on The Future Buzz to see the screenshot, which is pretty hysterical.

Copyright squared

There’s a new trend afoot to take the “notice” out of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s (DMCA’s) “notice and takedown” procedures:

The company is claiming that the DMCA takedown notice itself is copyrighted and that passing it along will constitute infringement. Of course, this raises some questions.

It does indeed.  For those of you unfamiliar with the DMCA’s notice and takedown procedures, they are a safe harbor that Congress wrote into the DMCA to shield service providers from certain types of copyright infringement suits.  ChillingEffects has this helpful explanation in their FAQ’s:

In order to have an allegedly infringing web site removed from a service provider’s network, or to have access to an allegedly infringing website disabled, the copyright owner must provide notice to the service provider with the following information:

  • The name, address, and electronic signature of the complaining party [512(c)(3)(A)(i)]
  • The infringing materials and their Internet location [512(c)(3)(A)(ii-iii)], or if the service provider is an “information location tool” such as a search engine, the reference or link to the infringing materials [512(d)(3)].
  • Sufficient information to identify the copyrighted works [512(c)(3)(A)(iv)].
  • A statement by the owner that it has a good faith belief that there is no legal basis for the use of the materials complained of [512(c)(3)(A)(v)].
  • A statement of the accuracy of the notice and, under penalty of perjury, that the complaining party is authorized to act on the behalf of the owner [512(c)(3)(A)(vi)].

Once notice is given to the service provider, or in circumstances where the service provider discovers the infringing material itself, it is required to expeditiously remove, or disable access to, the material. The safe harbor provisions do not require the service provider to notify the individual responsible for the allegedly infringing material before it has been removed, but they do require notification after the material is removed.

In his analysis, Mike Masnick notes a few of the problems with claiming copyright protection in DMCA takedown notices, particularly issues of authorship (“who owns the copyright”) and registration (“did whoever write this letter actually register it with the Copyright Office?”).  Of course, there are other problems to consider:

  1. First Amendment.  Do we really live in a world in which individuals can be subjected to legal process but cannot talk about what is happening to them?
  2. Fair use.  Among other things, isn’t the posting of DMCA notices transformative?  Is there any market effect that the law cares about?  Or is this like the proverbial “scathing theater review” that Justice Souter said “kills demand for the original” but “does not produce a harm cognizable under the Copyright Act”?  Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 510 US 569, 591-92 (1994).

It seems to me that if (1) you’re a copyright owner and (2) you think someone is infringing your rights and (3) you want it to stop but (4) you also want to keep it your little secret and not let anyone else in the world know other than the alleged infringer, then you should maybe reconsider (2), because the fact that you are insisting on (4) may indicate that (2) isn’t actually true.

Just a thought.