It seems incredibly appropriate that I'm sitting here the day after many online organisations were 'blacking out' in protest at the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), writing an article on how some of the organisations in support of this bill are showing over-zealous, knee-jerk reactions in protecting what they own and what they think they own.
YouTube, the world's biggest video streaming website is a prime example of how to manage freedom of speech and expression, whilst protecting the original material that rights holders own. Here's how...
YouTube has a content ID system that scans every video uploaded to see if copyrighted material has been used either partially or in it's entirety. Rights holders can sign up to protect their original content and if a video is flagged up as containing content they own they have three options.
1) Block the video
2) Monetise (earn revenue through adverts and iTunes links)
3) Track viewing metrics (keep an eye on it)
The content ID system is enormously important in allowing record labels and artists to control how their music is used - and for smaller musicians and acts, the chance to boost their revenue is obviously of great benefit.
Let's say for example some thug from the London riots last year uploaded a video of his mates setting fire to a car with a Lady Gaga track in the background. Presumably, Lady Gaga wouldn't want her music associated with such an action, therefore her label has the opportunity to block the video.
Let's now say that someone has uploaded a video of their dog on a skateboard and put an Avril Lavigne track with it. It's a bit naughty to use music without permission, but the video is kind of cute, so her record label might not mind too much about it and will let the video stay, but with adverts displayed so revenue can be gained in return.
Common sense prevails! Hooray! Or does it?
Well as good as the content ID system is for musicians, it can make mistakes - it is technology after all. Google have a dispute system in place for videos that have been mis-identified which should resolve any potential issues...shouldn't it?
Let me tell you a story about how a record label could possibly have taken advantage of the content ID system to make money out of an unsigned band.
That band, is my band. Le Monnier is a three-piece rock act that released an album in September and put their first music video on YouTube in October. Before I go any further let me say this: We wrote our own music, we recorded it ourselves and released it ourselves. There is no label involvement and we own the rights to our music completely.
So, in October we uploaded a video for a track called Con Amor Siempre. It gained a modest number of views and we were fairly happy, until one day we logged into our account and were told our video had been blocked in Germany because the video contained content owned by an entity called SME.
SME stands for Sony Music Entertainment and the content ID system had mistakenly identified our track as been owned or partially owned by them. Not only was the video blocked in Germany, but an advert had been displayed on our video's YouTube page and an iTunes link below for an artist and track that had nothing to do with our music.
Now I should say at this point, it obviously isn't Sony Music Entertainment's fault. YouTube's content ID system has clearly made a mistake and by submitting a dispute the whole matter should be cleared up. So we promptly disputed this and awaited the result. Our next visit to YouTube proved even more surprising:
Copyright Info: Le Monnier - Con Amor Siempre Music Video (HD)
These content owners have reviewed your video and confirmed their claims to some or all of its content: Entity: SME Content Type: Sound Recording
Say what? So by Sony Music Entertainment's own admission, they have watched our music video and decided they own some or all of it. Um... no they don't. We do. Entirely.
Now because we had already submitted our dispute to YouTube, the matter was finished in their eyes. The only way to resolve this issue now, was to contact Sony Music Entertainment directly. In the mean time, our video was still blocked in Germany and there were still adverts on the page with an incorrect iTunes link that presumably someone was earning money from.
So here is the long process we had to go through in order reclaim music that we've always owned the rights to. Firstly we had to send a tweet to @SonyMusicGlobal to obtain the right e-mail address. We then wrote to Sony Music asking them to remove their claim and here was the response: "This claim has been released. Thank you."
We were relieved! We logged into our account to check everything was okay and guess what? Nothing had changed. The block was still in place, the adverts were still there. "Okay," I thought. "It must take a couple of days to get fixed."
Two weeks later and we still had this false claim of ownership hanging over us. We sent one last e-mail to Sony Music Entertainment...
We recently contacted you about a false copyright claim made on one of our music videos. You replied to say this claim has been released, however this is not the case as restrictions on our video are still in place.
This is extremely damaging to our online presence, as our music video is blocked in Germany, cannot be viewed in user playlists, has adverts displaying on our video and an incorrect iTunes link. Does SME receive advertising revenue from the ads displayed on our video? Is the incorrect iTunes link for an SME signed artist? We wish to know whether Sony Music Entertainment has benefitted financially from our music which you have no rights over whatsoever.
We are writing to demand a written response to this complaint and action within 10 days of this e-mail being sent otherwise further action will be taken.
On behalf of Le Monnier
We asked some pretty reasonable questions about whether or not SME were making money out of our music. They didn't even bother with a response.
Last week, we only had one option left. We wrote a blog about our experience and took to Facebook and Twitter to tell our story.
Guess what? Within about 48 hours the ads and the country block had been removed. We had finally got what we wanted: to stop someone else wrongly claiming our music was theirs. The extent to which we had to go to, to argue that our music is ours was incredible.
If they did it to our band, how many other people are they doing it to? No apology or explanation was given and our important question remains unanswered. So let's ask it once more:
Do record labels use YouTube's content ID system to unfairly make money out of unsigned musicians?
Follow Matt Keil on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mattkeil