Copyright Bots Are Here To Stay

A string of mistaken, high-profile takedowns has caused some talk about the services video hosting sites like Ustream and YouTube use to police livestreaming content. YouTube’s take-down of the livestream of the NASA Curiosity rover’s landing was the first of these incidents. Subsequently, YouTube blocked the stream of Michelle Obama’s speech at the DNC, and Ustream cut off sci-fi author Neil Gaiman’s speech at the Hugo Awards, apparently for showing licensed clips from Doctor Who.

Sites like YouTube and Ustream use programs designed to detect copyrighted material. If the “bot” detects what it believes to be infringing material it shuts the video down. This, as the EFF points out, exceeds DMCA requirements. The DMCA requires that sites process takedown requests from copyright holders. It does not require sites to proactively police livestreams which have not been the subject of a notice from a copyright holder.

What we’re seeing shouldn’t be all that surprising. Processing takedown requests from copyright owners (especially in the magnitudes large sites must deal with) is expensive. YouTube uses its ContentID system to automate the process of notice and takedown, and to give copyright holders the ability to monetize infringing content posted to YouTube. The traditional notice and takedown system is even more poorly suited to dealing with live-streams, where copyright holders desire an immediate response. Utilizing a program which automatically detects copyrighted materials cheapens the cost of enforcement for content hosts.

Unfortunately, these recent examples show how the quest to enforce copyright can affect legitimate users. The notice and takedown scheme was already applied too broadly, and it’s the same story with automatized takedown. Fair use, as the EFF says, is hard to code for.

Worse, such bots are likely to stay. The consequences of a mistaken take-down for the host are extremely small, and for the most part will be limited to criticism from users. Such criticism isn’t always ineffectual — Ustream suspended its bot service after the Hugo Awards takedown, but think about all of the other streams which have been terminated, but were watched by only a handful of people.

It’s hard to balance efficient copyright enforcement while recognizing and protecting fair use. But as things are now, over-enforcement copyright claims is less expensive than under-enforcement, and automated takedown is here to stay. Hopefully the attention being focused on them will force a refinement in the algorithms used to detect infringing content.