Are Our Creative Lives To Be Ruled By “Algorithmic Copyright Cops”?

1984-Big-BrotherThe recent tale of a musician's cover song videos of works in the public domain being taken down due to misidentification by YouTube's ContentID system is but one example of the ongoing failure of algorithmic systems to properly handle takedown requests. Recently such problems have been seen with live streaming video as well, leading to major live events such as Michelle Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention being blocked on YouTube. Welcome to a world in which "Robotic Overlords" rule your creative activites and human intervention is rarely available or too late to save the day.

We've seen plenty of examples of videos being pulled from YouTube due to false claims by major labels and incorrect automated takedowns via algorithm. For some people such issues are a minor inconvenience. For others, it's an ongoing disruption in already all too busy schedules with financial repercussions.

Now we can add takedowns of live streams by algorithms to the list of problematic policing of copyright claims. The recent incident of Michelle Obama's live speech being blocked due to supposed music copyright violations was downplayed by YouTube and a spokesman appeared to be covering up the fact that the video was unplayable. Though this incident was related to music copyright, film/video copyright has also been an issue for example when the recent Hugo Awards for science fiction were interrupted on Ustream.

As noted on Wired by Geeta Dayal, the overreach of copyright policing by content copyright owners such as major labels is being abetted by video services exceeding DMCA requirements:

"A swarm of tech companies are rushing in to provide technical solutions to enforce copyright in online sharing communities and video-streaming sites. Those players include Vobile, Attributor, Audible Magic, and Gracenote. And they’re thriving, despite the fact that U.S. copyright law, as modified by the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, doesn’t require sites that host user-created content to preemptively patrol for copyright violations."

As Dave Colvin noted regarding the regular takedowns of his legal music videos, the failures of such algorithmic systems are compounded by the inaccessibility of humans at such services as YouTube.

Such services claim that there are so many people using them that ruining a live event, even one such as the Hugo Awards, is no big deal. As Ustream's VP of marketing David Thompson told Dayal for Wired:

"The thing to understand is that at any given time, we can have tens of thousands of simultaneous broadcasts on the site, which is coming through the free service, which is why we’ve implemented these automated procedures to monitor copyright, as part of our partnership with these larger media brands…From the system's point of view, [the Hugo Awards] were just one of tens of thousands of people broadcasting at one particular time."

Note that a VP of marketing is explaining his company's failure by referring to "the system" as if has a "point of view" and a life of its own.  Of course, the driving force behind this approach is the move by such services to attempt to become partners "with these larger media brands."

The headline of Dayal's article equates "Algorithmic Copyright Cops" to "Robotic Overlords." To some that might seem overly dramatic. But think about what happens when you are dealing with customer service provided by a company such as AT&T whose customer service personnel sometimes seem incompetent.

I mention AT&T because I spent a couple of hours one day being transferred from office to office around the country because the initial customer service person I encountered did not believe and had never heard of a case like mine which was a simple example of being charged for services that I was supposed to get for free due to a promotion for Internet access. The next day I again tried customer service in a last ditch effort before switching to another provider. This time I reached a human that took care of my problem in five minutes.

So what happens when a major corporation that provides services important to the livelihood of musicians such as YouTube does away with customer service by humans and hands it over to strings of numbers? When there's no one to call and the machines are running the show, not only is fair use endangered but so are the revenue streams so many musicians are learning to depend upon.

Welcome to your future. Now can you explain your problem in code?

Hypebot Senior Contributor Clyde Smith (@fluxresearch) blogs about music crowdfunding at Crowdfunding For Musicians (@CrowdfundingM). To suggest topics for Hypebot, contact: clyde(at)fluxresearch(dot)com.

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  1. I too have been frustrated in dealing with non-human (or more often, non-existent) customer service, and I have also had a legal / legit remix clip rejected by soundcloud’s copyright bots. Having been there / done that I am within my rights to say this article is quite frankly whiny.
    New technology will have bugs. We will have to suffer the indignities of these bugs. But it is simply not cost effective, even for major artists, to have real humans patrol online services to prevent theft of content. Instead of complaining about the inconveniences caused by anti-theft algorithms, perhaps you should complain about the thieves who make them necessary.
    Over time the algorithms will get better, as technology always does, and will help provide an excellent deterrent to theft. So I for one welcome our new robot overlords, as should any artist who wants to get paid for the content they create.
    – Tungsten Carbide,

  2. PS – Clyde, the response above is not meant as a general slam on you and your otherwise excellent articles, but I have seen a lot of people complaining about copyright bots recently, and there seems to be an almost total lack of perspective that this is a reasonable compromise between the extremes of (on the one hand) expecting thieves to abide by “the honor system” and (on the other) having the RIAA call the SWAT team to kick down people’s doors.

  3. One users bug is another developers feature. I’m afraid Google owned ventures have shown an ever-growing propensity to rely on algorithms to implement various totalitarian business models, especially when they can use these algorithms to appease rights holders and set a legal precedent to show pro-active action.
    Inconvenience to subscribers is a small price to pay since subscribers are not YouTube’s actual customers. Thus there is little incentive for YouTube to do much more than have a spin doctor post an email of appeasement in response to some of the more high-profile erroneous take-downs.
    Google’s algorithms are something they are very proud of and they will undoubtedly become more and more sophisticated. But sophistication is in the eye of the beholder and eventually it will become apparent to even YouTube that algorithms designed for monitoring and policing of copyright (as the antiquated copyright realm becomes more and more dysfunctional and desperate)will be counter-productive. Hopefully they will then realize where the internet ultimately has to go.
    Partially because of copyright issues there has never been an actual open free market in Digital media. We have never had an opportunity to see a true market value set for creative digital goods and services. Historically, when we enhance economic incentives toward creative content and creative sharing and distribution it in turn leads to a largely self-policing business model through actual stakeholder interest rather than the legacy interests of crumbling monopolies. When content providers can finally freely compete for subscriber attention and realize it’s a new kind of audience with new priorities. YouTube may then realize who their real customers are.

  4. True market values are set by competitive pricing, and are skewed by the presence of stolen property made freely available without penalty. In the case of Youtube, Google, Facebook, etc, the people who use those services are not the customers and never will be – they and their information are the product, and the customers are the advertisers who put money in the content providers pockets. This is neither good nor bad, it is simply the incentive structure of the environment that has emerged. In this environment the customers of Youtube et al (the advertisers) couldn’t give a rats ass how the product (subscribers / viewers) gets to their ad. If Youtube and Google are not explicitly prevented from offering stolen property to lure viewers to their customer’s ads then they will do so.
    That’s the simple structure of the market.

  5. I appreciate that clarification since I generally find being called “whiny” rather annoying when I’m pointing to a phenomenon that has much bigger ramifications than annoyance and some wasted time.
    One thing that I didn’t get into is the fact Google will throw human operators at problems when they feel it’s to their advantage:
    that ranges from having humans correct their world map data by hand (a huge task), change specific sites’ PR ratings and other search engine factors by hand and view huge numbers of photos to check for various illegal acts.
    You should think about what it would mean to have your account banned, your ip address banned and more extreme measures to cut you off that could be developed in the future with no recourse to a human being. Obviously we don’t know what the future will bring but assuming that it’s not going to be any worse than it is now when Google can do what they do now with impunity is rather foolish and short-sighted.
    You should also consider the fact that Google is not doing these things to stop piracy. They benefit from piracy. YouTube was built on piracy. They’re doing these things to build better relationships with major content owners, not DIYers and indie content owners.

  6. The Humanops, I really don’t have any issues with your analysis above but I have qualms as to whether YouTube’s business model is a healthy and sustainable market from a culture industry point of view. And I think you’d agree that any business that relies on advertising revenue is in the culture business.
    Music’s cultural impact has been diminished in the digital realm by media attributes that abet piracy much more than piracy is a source of instability in and of itself. It is a historically repeatable pattern that new mediums use old mediums as their content just as TV used radio, newspapers, and movies. When a shift like this occurred there was an adjustment of unit price (advertising minutes) to reflect production costs (which rose)based on the perceived value of the product(a homogeneous and nationwide audience for the first time in history) yet in this media shift the digital marketplace seems to be propping up a unit value from a bygone market even as production costs have gone down. This suggests that YouTube does business in a fixed market. The consequence of this kind of scenario is deflation of value and eventual collapse, black-markets (through piracy in this case) are symptomatic rather than the cause of fixed markets.
    Competition is never the major factor in setting prices unless the product is a commodity. We may argue about whether viewers/subscribers on YouTube are an actual commodity but it seems clear that YouTube views them as such. As such this market is non-sustainable and take-downs amount to a rear guard action to prop an illegitimate market value. It’s a race to the bottom
    Getting back to the incentive structure in using digital media to attract an audience for advertiser dollars, while television was able to justify revenue rates by offering a huge increase in the scale of viewers to corporations that had never had such access before. There is no corresponding argument to be made on the internet when the scale goes from nationwide to everybody on the planet which seems to create an inverse proportionate effect when relying on page clicks to set rates. Effectively an audience of everybody and his dog is the same as an audience of nobody.
    This is reflected in the ways YouTube relies on Google’s algorithms to parse audience data among other purposes in order to maximize perceived value to advertisers. Take-downs and policing content producers is a side issue to YouTube but it is indicative of an unhealthy fragile market. You’ve got a market where various forces are trying to deflate the unit price while the content providers are trying to force the price up and a consistent level of anxiety by all parties caused by an audience that views the value of the enticements to be zero. Stolen property may be the least of YouTube’s worries.

  7. Yeah, sorry clyde – I was writing in between conf calls and I would have edited out “whiny” if the timeout let me 🙂 ….
    Totally agree that google doesn’t care that they are violating copyrights or giving users a crappy experience because neither of those parties are their customers.
    Anyway, I have definitely had my share of problems with automated stuff – even working against the interest of the copyright holder. My Facebook page for my band is completely f’ed up – there’s a ton of stuff that doesn’t work correctly, it doesn’t show up as a business, they intermittently misclassify it as as a fan page (even though I am a copyright / trademark holder of the business name), I could go on. Most of the problems with that are due to algorithms making judgments about whether I am the legit business representative for my band. I have no f’ing idea how to fix it, and everything on facebook is designed to prevent you from ever contacting a human who works for facebook.
    So I feel your pain, but I do think that this is just a stage of evolution that we’re going through (in the case of facebook they will probably just go the way of AOL).
    Eventually this stuff will get straightened out, but I am pessimistic that it will get worse not better in the near-term. I do think that eventually things will go a lot more smoothly including appeals processes, because some of these screw-ups give people grounds to sue.

  8. hahahahahahaha… welcome to the other side of “disruptive technology” and “permissionless innovation”…

  9. I’m coming from the viewpoint of being a DIY artist who frequently has to send DMCA Takedown Notices for unauthorized uses. Just so you know in advance where my comments come from.
    I get that it’s inconvenient for Joe Youtube User to sometimes have his video taken down accidentally. I also get that sometimes larger corporations get errant takedown notices by copyright bots, and that there is some level of PR-related or financial-related impact. Millions of dollars worth? No. A couple bucks’ of convenience worth? Sure. But the minor inconvenience that these aggrieved parties experience is very small when stacked up next to the damage that the actual infringed-upon party experiences. Let’s keep in mind that YouTube is a free service, and Joe Youtube User isn’t having anything of his stolen, misued, monetized without his consent, or given away freely without his permission.
    My problem with the ever-increasing ever-escalating “are copyright takedown bots coming to steal your children” argument is that it creates a false equivalency between 1 person’s actual work being infringed upon and 1 person’s minor inconvenience of having his clip accidentally taken down. From a free service.
    The DMCA was a stop-gap:it provides remedies for a copyright owner, but not timely ones. 48- to 72-hours later, the material comes down. But in the meantime it remains active, and this includes youtube entries where the info field , or comments, often include things like “if you want to download this song, hit my rapidshare link” — where not only are the thousands, tens of thousands, or even millions of people then downloading the music for free, but they’re going to continue to do it for the next 48-72 hours, while youtube ponders your DMCA Takedown Notice. And the person who posts the link is getting $ from your copyrighted content, used without authorization, driving traffic to their download link where people can sign up and then a percentage of that signup is a commission for the person who posted the rapidshare link to begin with.
    When you’re the DIY artist whose work is being stolen, reading an article that says, “Yeah but Johnny’s video got taken down because it had a PD song in it that was misidentified” is kinda infuriating. I’m really sorry that Johnny’s video got taken down, but ultimately no damage has been done to Johnny. Damage *has* been done to the copyright holder.

  10. I understand where you’re coming from. There’s a lot to be considered here.
    Of course it’s easy to dismiss systematic mistakes as “inconvenient” and to assume that pirating is costing you sales.
    I’d say cutting off a livestream of a speech at a national party convention during a Presidential election is something more than inconvenient:
    And maybe some of those pirates would have bought your music. Because, you know, maybe they would.
    Let’s see: Real damage done to a major political campaign versus potential and possibly imaginary damage done to an ip owner.
    Yep, there’s lot to consider here.

  11. Are you of the school of thought that piracy is good for artists? I’m not. When my music is used in a YouTube video that has 50k hits, and a user asks what the music is, and the poster replies with the title along with “and you can download it here at my rapidshare link”– it’s a pretty safe bet that some of those 50k users downloaded the pirate copy. It’s not a suspicion that piracy may have happened: it happened. It’s empirical. My remedy was to send a DMCA takedown notice: 2 days later the video came down. I don’t know how many additional pirate downloads happened during that 2 days, but I think I was more damaged in the transaction than the original uploader.
    It’s a bummer that Michelle Obama’s live stream in YouTube was interrupted. Thankfully though, every news website was carrying it live, and you could tune into any of the major tv nets as well as the cable news channels to see it. In fact, the news websites all carried an archived version of the speech as well. My problem with this example is that it has become the new talking point in forums for people who just want another reason to say “piracy is good.”. If your overarching assertion is that because the technology isn’t perfect yet, it should be thrown out entirely, I disagree from the get-go. But if your assertion is bigger than that, and is actually that piracy is OK, then I think there’s no way to bridge the gap between that position and an artist’s wanting to NOT have his work pirated. And if your assertion goes even further — to be that because Joe YouTube User’s clip got taken down accidentally, therefore copyright is bad and copyright owners are bad and are somehow treading on some greater moral right — I don’t buy it.
    The technology will eventually get ironed out, I’m sure. From the DMCA Takedown side of things, I agree that it would be great if google/YouTube had some real people that I could connect with. But in the meantime I’ll just keep sending DMCA takedowns when I need to, and I’ll continue to enjoy the 48-72 hr waiting period for them to be Addressed. And as my frustration mounts during that time period, I will probably find myself thinking, “I need to get me me of those automated copyright bot things, cuz they work faster.”

  12. You make some reasonable points though there’s no need to speculate about what I think.
    Actually, your time might be better served by taking your thoughts and writing a guest post for Hypebot along with links to your site.
    You’ll get more readers than you will in the comments section plus you might get some people purchasing your music.
    And I promise not to post any rapidshare links!

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