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US Congress asks why YouTube Content ID is not more widely available to copyright owners

By | Published on Monday 9 September 2019


Eight members of Congress in the US last week sent a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai requesting that the web giant participate in a roundtable discussion all about YouTube’s Content ID technology. Although the lawmakers ask an assortment of questions, a key concern seems to be why the rights management platform is not available to a wider range of copyright owners.

Content ID, of course, is the platform YouTube has developed to help copyright owners more easily spot when videos are uploaded to the site that contain their content. Employing clever content recognition technology, it automates much of the monitoring process, and then allows the copyright owner to either block any video that contains their content without permission, or to take any advertising income said video generates.

YouTube is obliged to offer some kind of takedown system for copyright owners via which they can demand the removal of content they own when it is uploaded without licence. Without such a system YouTube would lose safe harbour protection under copyright law and could be held liable for copyright infringing materials on its servers.

The music industry in particular doesn’t like the fact that YouTube claims such safe harbour protection. Though at the same time, it would probably acknowledge that Content ID is a pretty good takedown system, especially when it comes to spotting sound recordings contained in uploaded videos.

Plus royalties from user-generated content platforms are set to become a key growth revenue stream for the music industry in the years ahead and Content ID – and platforms like it – play a crucial role in enabling all of that.

The eight Congress members who wrote to Pachai last week acknowledged the benefits of Content ID, writing in their letter that “we appreciate Google’s efforts to combat the illegal distribution of content on YouTube”. However, they then said: “We are concerned that copyright holders with smaller catalogues of works cannot utilise” the copyright tools.

As a content creator and copyright owner there are different levels at which you can interact with YouTube, and the Google site has set criteria for who qualifies for what.

Anyone can set up a YouTube channel, but you have to have a certain number of subscribers and views before you can become a full-on content partner and monetise your videos. Access to Content ID is then further restricted, so that in music most artists and smaller labels would need to work with a distributor to utilise the rights management system.

Expanding on this point, the Congress members’ letter goes on: “It has come to our attention that access to the Content ID system is only granted to companies that ‘own exclusive rights to a substantial body of original material that is frequently uploaded to the YouTube user community’. We are concerned that copyright holders with smaller catalogues of works cannot utilise Content ID, making it more difficult or impossible for them to effectively protect their copyright works from infringement and, ultimately, impacting their livelihoods”.

“We have heard from copyright holders who have been denied access to Content ID tools”, it goes on, “and [who] as a result are at a significant disadvantage to prevent the repeated uploading of content that they have previously identified as infringing. They are left with the choice of spending hours each week seeking out and sending notices about the same copyrighted works, or allowing their intellectual property to be misappropriated”.

The letter then suggests a range of topics that the Congress members would like to discuss with Google and YouTube reps. That includes some inquiries about how Content ID works but also, more importantly, about the criteria YouTube uses in deciding who should enjoy access to it. And also if it plans to expand access to a wider range of copyright owners. And if not, why not.

The letter then asks: “Other than YouTube, on what Google platforms is Content ID used to identify and block infringing material? For example, do you use it to block the distribution of infringing material on Blogger, Google Photos and Google Drive, among others? If not, do you plan to implement Content ID or similar safeguards on these platforms?”.

Which is an interesting question because, while the music industry’s Google feuding has been very YouTube centric in recent years, when it comes to takedown, Content ID is a pretty good system. Whereas music companies have long argued that the takedown process on Google search could and should be much more effective, especially when it comes to the concept of takedown and stay down, which is what Content ID seeks to achieve on YouTube.

It remains to be seen how Google responds to the Congress members’ questions and their request for a roundtable to discuss these matters further.