Monday, September 10, 2012

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

Clyde Smith/Hypebot

The 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?

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