May 22, 2020 - Technology

Hollywood and tech prep for another round of copyright wars

Animated illustration of a copyright symbol as a vinyl playing on a record player.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A new report from the U.S. Copyright Office is set to tee off another round in the long-running fight between tech platforms and the entertainment industry over copyright infringement.

Why it matters: Owners of music and movie libraries say piracy remains rampant online, and the entertainment lobby, which has long pushed tech platforms to do more to police for infringing material, now sees an opening to win concessions.

"There’s been a breach in the dam that was giving complete and absolute protection to Silicon Valley based on this sort of thinking that we can’t touch them," Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) CEO Mitch Glazier told Axios.

Driving the news: The Copyright Office on Thursday released a report, five years in the making, assessing the effectiveness of the current process for getting online platforms to remove copyrighted material that users post without permission.

  • The report concludes that the balance between online companies and rights-holders is "askew," and outlines areas for updates, including criteria for determining who gets to be immune from liability and policies intended to deter repeat offenders, which the Copyright Office said may not be working.
  • The current system is built on 1998's Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which provides liability protection for online companies whose users illegally upload copyrighted material if the online companies take it down when they are notified by the rights-holder.
  • Both the RIAA and the Motion Picture Association applauded the report.

Yes, but: The Re:Create Coalition, a copyright-focused advocacy group, said such changes would chill free expression and creativity, with executive director Joshua Lamel saying the report "only suggests changes that rightsholders asked for."

Where it stands: RIAA and other music industry groups, including the Music Artists Coalition and the National Music Publishers Association, have outlined three key concessions they want from tech platforms they say would address issues identified in the report:

  • Help cracking down on stream ripping. "Stream rippers" are tools that pull the audio from content like music videos on YouTube and make the songs available for internet users to download.
  • Better monitoring for infringements. Social media platforms like Twitter should provide tools to allow copyright holders to monitor for infringement and use an automated takedown system. YouTube already offers a similar service.
  • Reducing repeat notices. Rights-holders complain of playing whack-a-mole, in which their work reappears constantly despite successful takedown notices.

Between the lines: The Copyright Office report enumerates holes in the existing system but doesn't make its own recommendations for legislative fixes.

  • Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.), the leaders of the Senate Judiciary intellectual property subcommittee, began a series of hearings earlier this year to gather input on considering changes to the DMCA.
  • The committee plans to focus on the notice and takedown system at a June 2 hearing.

The other side: The Internet Association argues changes are not warranted, and that platforms have proactively worked with rights-holders to protect content.

  • The current rules "recognize that rightsholders are the best judge of potentially infringing content and set a baseline that many IA member companies go above and beyond to impede access to illegal content, and ensure creators are fairly compensated," Internet Association interim president Jon Berroya said in a statement.
  • YouTube's Content ID program lets movie studios, record labels and others submit reference files of copyrighted materials, which are then scanned across YouTube for matches. Rights-holders can request that material is taken down, or choose to monetize it. More than 90% of Content ID claims result in monetization.

The catch: Changes made to protect copyright could lead to censorship or other abuse, some tech firms and public interest groups have argued.

  • YouTube said more than 10% of the copyright takedown requests it received via its web form last year were found to be a likely false claim of copyright ownership. Another 19% were either incomplete or misunderstood the removal process.
  • A Wall Street Journal report this month found that takedown notices were exploited to remove hundreds of unfavorable news articles or posts from Google search results.

One fun thing: The original app developed by Pied Piper, the startup at the center of HBO's "Silicon Valley" comedy, aimed to identify and root out copyright-infringing music files. (It went nowhere, but its compression algorithm wowed investors.)

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