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YouTube sued for not making Content ID more widely available to independent music-makers

By | Published on Friday 3 July 2020

Grammy winner Maria Schneider has filed a class action lawsuit in California accusing YouTube of copyright infringement. The legal action mainly deals with a common gripe among the independent and grassroots music communities, that the Google company’s rights management platform Content ID is only available to bigger rights owners and distributors.

The wider music industry has had a rocky relationship with YouTube over the years, of course, arguing that the Google platform has exploited a copyright safe harbour that was really intended for internet service providers and server hosting companies in order to bully record labels, music publishers and collecting societies into less favourable licensing deals.

That safe harbour protection that stops internet companies from being held liable for copyright infringement when their users upload unlicensed content is reliant on said net firms offering a system via which copyright owners can have infringing content removed.

Despite the various music industry v YouTube battles that have happened over the years, Content ID is actually one of the better takedown systems, automating the process to an extent, and allowing rights owners to monetise rather than block videos that contain their content if they so wish.

However, that only helps if you are a rights owner granted access to Content ID. Everyone else has to file takedown notices in a more manual way. And, Schneider argues, YouTube’s non-Content ID systems for dealing with infringing content are not sufficient for the company to enjoy safe harbour protection under the rules set out in America’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

“YouTube, the largest video-sharing website in the world, is replete with videos infringing on the rights of copyright holders”, her lawsuit states. “YouTube has facilitated and induced this hotbed of copyright infringement through its development and implementation of a copyright enforcement system that protects only the most powerful copyright owners such as major studios and record labels”.

“Plaintiffs and the class are the ordinary creators of copyrighted works”, it goes on. “They are denied any meaningful opportunity to prevent YouTube’s public display of works that infringe their copyrights – no matter how many times their works have previously been pirated on the platform. They are thus left behind by YouTube’s copyright enforcement system and instead are provided no meaningful ability to police the extensive infringement of their copyrighted work”.

“If a rights holder does not have the economic clout to qualify for Content ID”, it then adds, “YouTube refuses to add their works to the Content ID catalogue for prepublication protection even if those works have previously been infringed on YouTube hundreds or even thousands of times. Through its use of these systems, YouTube exerts significant control over which infringing videos may be published on its site and which infringing videos are never viewed by the public”.

Of course, under current safe harbour rules in the US, YouTube isn’t actually obliged under law to offer a takedown system as sophisticated as Content ID. And Google has always argued that Content ID is a powerful tool which gives rights owners the ability to block other creators’ content, which is why it only makes it available to more sophisticated rights owners who meet certain criteria that means they can be trusted to use that power responsibly.

However, many independent music-makers have argued that Content ID should nevertheless be available to all. And some reckon takedown-and-stay-down tools of this kind should actually be a legal requirement for safe harbour dwellers (indeed that proposal was discussed in a recent letter between the US Copyright Office and the Senate IP Committee in US Congress).

The big question in this case, though, is whether or not the way YouTube deals with takedown requests outside of the Content ID system is sufficient to satisfy its DMCA obligations.

Schneider, obviously, argues that it is not. “Defendants are liable for the copyright piracy on their platform because their current approach to copyright infringement, including the operation of the Content ID system, fails to satisfy the requirements mandated in order to be protected under the DMCA safe harbour”, the lawsuit declares.

We await YouTube’s response with interest.