Cracking Down on Video Piracy

MySpace is stepping up efforts to block uploads of unauthorized content with new screening technology. Google, are you listening?

The pressure on Google to institute more aggressive copyright protections and policies is mounting. The latest heat emanates from social-networking site MySpace, which announced Feb. 12 that it is expanding the use of audio screening technology to block the uploading of unlicensed videos to its site. The company already uses "fingerprinting" technology licensed from content management company Audible Magic to filter out music owned by major labels.

In a statement, MySpace Chief Executive and co-founder Chris DeWolfe said the company's action was intended to show its users, many of whom are musicians, that it respects their work and ownership rights. "MySpace is dedicated to ensuring that content owners, whether large or small, can both promote and protect their content in our community," he said.

It's a point particularly important for MySpace to make, given that its parent company is News Corp. (NWS), owner of dozens of television stations, networks, and film studios. However, it also underscores the relative lack of copyright protection offered by YouTube and its parent Google (GOOG) at a time when media companies, including News Corp., are fighting to keep their unlicensed content off the video-sharing site. "It undoubtedly puts the pressure on Google," says James McQuivey, Forrester Research's (FORR) principal technology and media analyst.

We'll See You in Court

The media companies have been vocal about their dissatisfaction with Google. They have accused the search giant of directing traffic and selling ads to two sites that sold pirated films, according to a Feb. 12 report inThe Wall Street Journal.

News Corp. has subpoenaed YouTube for the identity of users who uploaded full episodes of Twentieth Century Fox's prime-time series 24 before they even debuted on television (see, 1/26/07, "Google and YouTube: A Catch-22"). Late last week, YouTube gave up the identities, according to a Fox statement.

Similarly, Viacom demanded earlier this month that YouTube remove more than 100,000 clips, including snippets of its frequently uploaded Comedy Central shows, after failing to reach a licensing agreement with Google or YouTube (see, 2/2/07, "Viacom's High-Stakes Duel with Google"). In a statement, a Viacom spokesman complained of YouTube's lack of screening technology: "Filtering tools promised repeatedly by YouTube and Google have not been put in place, and they continue to host and stream vast amounts of unauthorized video."

Three Strikes and You're Out

YouTube has repeatedly said that it abides by the copyright laws, taking down infringing clips as soon as it is notified of their existence. The company also maintains that it has copyright-protection tools and is working on developing additional capabilities, which it will roll out over time.

In a Feb. 12 statement, a YouTube spokesperson said that the company uses automated technology to prevent files from being uploaded again after it has received copyright infringement notices and removed the offending files. It also highlighted a three-strikes policy that kicks users off the site who repeatedly upload material they don't own.

The spokesman said, however, that identifying copyrighted material on YouTube could not be a completely automated process because machines cannot tell whether the content owners want their clips to be uploaded for marketing and promotional purposes. "These matters are very complicated, and we are working with our partners to identify and solve these problems," said a spokesman.

No Takedown Notice Required

MySpace begs to differ. Audible Magic's technology works by enabling content creators to upload audio tracks of their songs or videos, for free, to its database, says company founder and CEO Vance Ikezoye. It then assigns rules to each audio track based on the agreements the content providers have with Internet sites. If the site has an agreement to allow the content to play, Audible Magic technology recognizes it and allows it to be uploaded. It also tracks how often it is played for the purposes of ad revenue-sharing agreements or market research. If the content is identified as not permitted, the technology blocks it from being uploaded. A takedown notice requesting removal of the offending material from the site isn't necessary because uploading of the content isn't allowed in the first place.

Since launching in 1999, Audible Magic has built a database of most music from major labels and has expanded into video content. It charges Internet services flat fees based on the number of uploads to a site. "It is much more proactive from the sites' point of view than just reacting to some request to take it down," said Ikezoye. "If you want to survive and make these sites work, then ultimately cooperating with the copyright holders is going to be best."

Audible Magic's technology is used by video-sharing site Grouper, which Sony (SNE) acquired last year, and a host of other sites. And it's not the only fingerprinting technology out there. Video-sharing site Guba developed a similar screening tool with the Motion Picture Association of America called Johnny. The company says that it affirmatively blocks copyrighted material from being uploaded to the site.

Waiting for Google

What irks media companies is the existence of technology that could help alleviate some of their concerns but doesn't appear to be in wide use by Google. If these technologies can work on a large scale—which some would argue remains to be seen—these companies wonder why Google doesn't license, buy, or have its army of engineers develop similar technology. "We have to assume that the technology is out there," says Viacom spokesman Jeremy Zweig.

The answer may be that Google simply doesn't have to. As it stands, Google's policy of waiting for a takedown notice complies with copyright law, which puts the onus on the copyright owner to find infringements and request removal. Any change in legal interpretation, perhaps brought about by more affirmative actions from Internet companies such as Google, could have a slippery-slope effect, changing the rules for not just hosted video-sharing sites but also blogs and other sites where search engines direct traffic. Imagine the expense of Google having to check for copyright violations not just on YouTube but on all of its Blogger content. Right now, the media companies must police those sites.

Still, Google may have no other choice if it wishes to do business with the Viacoms of the world, says Forrester's McQuivey. "I think at some point they are going to have to give in and make nice in the sandbox with the media companies," he says.

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