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German rights organisation backs hosting company Uberspace in youtube-dl dispute with the majors

By | Published on Wednesday 9 March 2022


German organisation Gesellschaft Für Freiheitsrechte – which loosely translates as the Society For Liberties – has announced that it is backing server hosting company Uberspace in its battle with the major record companies over its hosting of the official web page for youtube-dl, the open-source download manager that facilitates stream-ripping.

The GFF has filed a defence on behalf of the hosting company with the Hamburg Regional Court in response to legal action by the music firms. That litigation, it argues, is “another attempt by the music industry to make legitimate internet activities – such as using download tools – illegal under the pretext of copyright”.

Stream-ripping – services that allow people to grab permanent downloads of temporary streams – has been a top piracy gripe of the music industry for sometime now. As a result, music companies have been targeting stream-ripping websites and services with lawsuits and web-blocking injunctions. And, on occasion, have also targeted internet companies and platforms that are seen to be helping people access stream-ripping tools.

As part of that latter activity, in 2020 the music industry tried to get the code for youtube-dl – a software tool that enables stream ripping – removed from Github. Those attempts were initially successful but, after a mini-controversy, Github restored the code to its platform.

Concurrent to all that, the music industry also sent the Germany-based Uberspace a cease-and-desist letter, because it hosts the official web page of youtube-dl, even though the actual code isn’t stored there. The labels wanted Uberspace to takedown the youtube-dl web page. But it refused, so earlier this year the labels actually went legal through the German courts.

Some argue that, because stream-ripping tools have legitimate as well as illegitimate uses – and don’t actually host or distribute any content during the stream-ripping process – they can’t be held liable for any copyright infringement they may inadvertently enable.

Which initially seems like a pretty reasonable position to take. Although it’s worth noting, that was the argument used by most of the P2P file-sharing tools back in the early 2000s – and in the main that argument didn’t usually stand up in court.

Also, many stream-ripping tools specifically connect to platforms like YouTube. And, copyright owners would usually argue, YouTube has content protection systems in place to stop people ripping content from their streams.

The stream-ripping tools deliberately circumvent those systems. And in many countries such circumvention is also prohibited by copyright law. Although the stream-rippers counter that YouTube’s efforts to block stream-ripping are so modest they can’t really be called a content protection system.

Meanwhile, you have the other debate about how far down the supply chain anti-piracy measures should go. Should Github be obliged to delete the youtube-dl code and Uberpsace the youtube-dl webpage on copyright grounds at the say so of the major record companies?

If the labels’ lawsuit against Uberspace gets to court in Hamburg, these are likely to be among the topics for debate. And GFF will be there arguing that the copyright owners are going too far with their anti-piracy litigation, and in doing so are attacking the free speech and internet rights of German citizens.

Confirming in a blog post last week that it was helping Uberspace in this legal battle, the GFF wrote that the music industry’s lawsuit is “unjustified because hosting providers only have to block obviously illegal content” once made aware of it, and, it reckons, “the download tool youtube-dl is legal [because] it allows videos to be downloaded from over a thousand websites without circumventing effective copy protection measures”.

“The ability to legally download and edit video material from the internet is of central importance for the protection of freedom of the press, freedom of opinion and freedom of art”, it added, arguing that without that ability “quotations, parodies and mashups are otherwise unthinkable”.

Meanwhile, the organisation’s copyright expert Felix Reda, said: “Important political and social discourses take place on YouTube. The media, civil society and creative people depend on being able to work with this content – copyright law also explicitly allows this. The entertainment industry must not succeed in its renewed attack on free software and neutral internet services”.

GFF also said that it is supporting Uberspace – and another German internet service under pressure to do more to stop music piracy, that being DNS resolver Quad9 – because such organisations often aren’t equipped to fight back against legal action from big copyright owners, meaning debates regarding the actual liabilities and responsibilities of those organisations never get judicial clarification.

“Due to the unequal positions of power and financial resources, such lawsuits put neutral internet providers like Uberspace under enormous pressure”, GFF’s blog post continued. “This creates the risk that network providers will block content on demand – and without judicial clarification – in order to avoid lawsuits and legal costs. That would be a threat to freedom of information”.

It remains to be seen if this dispute actually gets to court and – if so – what way the German judges rule.