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YouTube-mp3 loses legal battle with German labels

By | Published on Friday 25 October 2013


YouTube-mp3, a tool that enables web-users to convert the audio of a YouTube video into an MP3 file, has lost a court battle with the German record industry, though it could continue to operate if it alters what happens behind the scenes.

As previously reported, YouTube-mp3 initially found itself in conflict with YouTube itself last year, when the Google-owned site started to take action to restrict the use of the audio-ripping tool.

Labels who gladly put their content onto YouTube, where they can earn ad-split royalties every time their music is consumed, won’t want users taking copies of tracks way with them for repeat listening away from the ads. And Google itself, of course, has an interest in keeping music fans within the YouTube eco-system.

But it was the German record industry which actually pursued legal action against the audio-ripping company. For it’s part, YouTube-mp3 initially said it was simply providing software than has legitimate uses, and was not itself involved in copyright infringement. Though precedents set in numerous file-sharing court rulings in various jurisdictions has set a principle that means, under many copyright systems, that excuse wouldn’t stand up.

That principle says: if a company distributes a software that is primarily used to enable copyright infringement, and if the company could refine the software to limit infringing usage but chooses not to, and especially if the company implies through its communications that its technology should or could be used to infringe, then the distributor itself can be held liable for contributory or authorising infringement. Even if it doesn’t actually host any infringing content, and its technology has legitimate uses.

Though in the German case, pursued by trade body BVMI, that wasn’t actually the argument employed. Rather, the labels discovered that behind the scenes YouTube-mp3 was keeping back-ups of audio-files ripped from YouTube, so that if multiple people wanted to rip the audio from the same video, the ripping service only had to actually access the YouTube platform once. Subsequent rippers would get a copy of their desired audio file directly off the YouTube-mp3 server.

Which means YouTube-mp3 was itself making, storing and distributing unlicensed copies of copyright recordings – nice, straight forward copyright infringement. According to Torrentfreak, the BVMI said: “Contrary to the common assumption that YouTube-mp3 is a streamripper that allows users to record songs from the internet (much as cassette recorders were used to record music from the radio back in the day), in fact the online converter often simply made the pieces available for download without a license”.

YouTube-mp3 actually admitted that this element of its service was infringing copyright before the dispute got to court, and committed to voluntarily cease and desist, an agreement that led to the Hamburg courts closing the case.

Of course YouTube-mp3 can still distribute its software and comply with that agreement providing it stops the backing-up element of what it does. Though the BVMI or other content owners may as yet pursue further action arguing the contributory infringement point.

The BVMI adds: “One thing is clear: this platform, as well as most other streamripper sites, generate considerable advertising income that is not shared with the artists or their partners. This has nothing to do with fairness, nor does it fit with our current digital age, when many music sites – some of them free – can be used perfectly legally on the internet”.