Wednesday, 5 September 2012

RoboCopyright: How The Copyright Police are ruining the internet


It never fails to amaze me what lengths some companies will go to when protecting their copyright.

Before I get all of my author and musician friends jumping down my throat about copyright protection, and how important it is to get paid a certain rate for what you produce, I just want to say - I agree with you. Nobody should have their work stolen outright. If it can be proved, and it has been stolen, then I have no sympathy for infringers.

But two things happened this week that bothered me regarding copyright, and the role it plays in protecting people's rights in the digital age on both sides of the debate.

Firstly, I was lucky enough once again to be asked to oversee and implement the social media elements of Blackpool's Illuminations this year. It's always a great event, and an ideal opportunity to get out of your comfort zone and converse with people in real time whilst they're enjoying a show. Or keep them occupied between songs. One of the two.

We had a really successful Smooth Radio event on Liverpool docks a couple of months ago, and we had enlisted the support of Google+ to help promote and facilitate a live concert broadcast as a hangout on air. They were fantastic, and the stream of the concert was really successful, barring a couple of issues with the sound streaming quality. 'Lesson learnt, we'll correct that for next time,' we thought.

So we did. We hired a wicked doo-dad-thing that beefs up the sound quality of our streams, and started testing it, only to find when we test streamed old live performances, we were getting copyright warnings from Youtube left, right and centre. So I contacted Google+ regarding this, and, to my surprise, they recommended that even though we had agreements in place from the artists to perform on the night and for it to be broadcast, we should proceed at our own risk, as our account could be closed down at any time.

Not wanting to take any risks, and having already invested money in getting our streaming technology up to scratch, we decided to try another service - Ustream.

So we stumped up, and the live streaming went ahead - hundreds of people unable to make the event were able to not only listen to it on our radio stations, but also watch the event online on our sites. 'Great work Ustream' everybody at our radio group shouted. Little did we know...

The Next Day - Spongebob Squarepants

Later that weekend, I saw a story in my Twitter feed regarding the copyright infringement issues that marred the Hugo Awards over in the USA, and the subsequent fallout in the tech press. Chastened by the story, I thanked my lucky stars that our plucky Development Manager, Dan Cryer, had insisted in upgrading our stream to a premium, ad-free service after the show started. Apparently, this 'white-lists' us against any shonky DRM issues.

An unauthorised content takedown by an event which artists agreed to perform at, and provide content (their songs) for, would have been a disaster for us from a digital point of view. And I really feel for the guys that run the Hugo awards. Content that they were given permission to use, such as clips for Doctor Who, were flagged as unauthorised content. This is baloney, and is frustrating and wrong on so many levels.

Firstly - it's a timely reminder to all of us out there, whether we're an individual, brand or business, that the copyright robots out there mean business. In fact, they represent business.

A quick glance at the site of Vobile, the company responsible for this action, shows that they help major media providers to prevent their content from being streamed or distributed illegally online. To represent this, they've got lots of very descriptive pictures of padlocks, DNA strands and the Hollywood hills, and using China's policing of coverage of the 2012 Olympics as a case study.

Vobile Landing page

So not creepy and authoritarian in the slightest, then.

I don't have a problem with companies like this existing. I think it's important that people are protected when it comes to copyright. But it seems to me that the whole furore about the Hugo awards and Ustream seems to point to the fact that somewhere along the line Vobile are fucking things up.

The way that they are going about things seems to be so arbitrary. Sweeping video content online via algorithmic robots may seem like a great idea for a copyright holder that's too busy to manage their copyright issues, but at it's best the execution is poor, so they're pissing their potential customers off, and wasting their money on a service that doesn't really understand what it's pursuing. As we know, copyright is a fairly nuanced concept, and what may be fair use for one person, may seem like infringement to others. A robot, or a spider crawling the information, doesn't get nuance in the same way as we do, or a judge in a court of law.

And the platforms like Youtube, Vimeo and Ustream need to be cool with it or they will get sued by all of the big movie companies. The very fact that the people at Youtube couldn't guarantee our stream wouldn't be shut down proves the fact that in many ways, as a platform grows and needs to work with bigger media providers more, the only people that benefit from this are the copyright holders and the platforms. They control the content, and even if you have the permission to use the content, they can shut you down.

So essentially, on these sites, you are guilty until proven innocent. Your content will be shut down before you even have the chance to contest it. No flagging - just rough, arbitrary justice that sometimes, especially in the case of the Hugo Awards, gets it staggeringly wrong.

In fact, Vobile's behaviour and protection methods strike me as aggressive, and unhelpful to both their clients and the people that willingly use online video platforms.

In fact, their heavy-handed 'protection' tactics put me in mind of this nightmare scene from my childhood - or is it a glimpse into the future of copyright enforcement online?

Vobile, I hope you're taking notes. Let's not make the digital equivalent of this a reality for all concerned. It's not merely 'a glitch' - it needs to be fixed for the good of copyright holders, and the people that respect them.

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