Accessing music, shows, movies, or other copyrighted materials for free via the internet is incredibly easy. Simply type a search term loosely related to the content you are seeking into a search engine and voila: you are provided with a long list of multimedia sources containing the content you searched for. Most of these sources are likely housed on YouTube—the world’s most popular video-sharing provider. While this arrangement is particularly convenient for the end user, YouTube presents a host of piracy and copyright concerns for owners of digital content.
In July, a putative class action lawsuit was filed against YouTube alleging that the site’s current copyright monitoring system is in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Led by Grammy Award winning-composer Maria Schneider and a piracy monitoring company known as Pirate Monitor Ltd., the purported class is comprised of “ordinary users” who allege that their content is frequently pirated and uploaded to YouTube.
The suit claims that YouTube’s copyright infringement monitoring system has “created a two-tiered system” through which “behemoths of the creative industry” such as large studios and record labels are protected, but smaller content producers have to continually monitor the site in order to ensure their work is not uploaded without authorization. More specifically, the purported class of “ordinary users” allege that they are unfairly restricted from using YouTube’s monitoring system, known as Content ID, which allows larger content producers to automatically remove or block instances of copyright infringement from appearing on YouTube. Without the power to use Content ID, the purported class alleges that they are forced to manually scan YouTube on a regular basis to find instances of infringement and then report them to YouTube.
Additionally, the plaintiffs claim that YouTube is complicit in this scheme because they are directly enriched by the “vast library of pirated content [which] draws users to the site.” The plaintiffs argue that as a result of this alleged increase in web traffic, YouTube is able to reap millions of dollars in advertising revenue. The purported class is seeking monetary damages and an order forcing Alphabet Inc., YouTube’s parent company, to grant small content producers access to technologies that more effectively monitor instances of copyright infringement.
In response to these claims, last week YouTube renounced the suit as “misguided.” In a motion to dismiss, YouTube countered that its copyright monitoring technologies are very effective in detecting potential instances of infringement and cited the DMCA’s safe harbors as protection against potential instances of copyright infringement by YouTube users. Regarding its Content ID system, YouTube argued that restricting access to a select group of larger content providers is justified because the “tools are so powerful, they must be used with care.” YouTube noted that it would be a slippery slope to allow all content providers access to these tools because “in the wrong hands, these tools can be used to censor videos that other have every right to share through YouTube.”
Given YouTube’s domination of the online video-sharing community, Schneider v. YouTube has the potential to fundamentally change how video-sharing websites monitor potential instances of copyright infringement.
In arguably the most persuasive portion of the brief, YouTube alleges that Pirate Monitor’s attempts to gain access to Content ID precisely demonstrate why certain users cannot be trusted to use the tool properly. YouTube alleges that Pirate Monitor has unsuccessfully attempted to manipulate the site’s copyright monitoring tools in a “ruse to obtain access to Content ID.” Because of these alleged attempts to improperly gain access to Content ID, YouTube is countersuing Pirate Monitor for fraud, breaching YouTube’s terms of service, and violating the DMCA.
Given YouTube’s domination of the online video-sharing community, Schneider v. YouTube has the potential to fundamentally change how video-sharing websites monitor potential instances of copyright infringement. A victory for the purported class would likely force YouTube and other companies in this space to grant smaller content providers widespread access to their existing copyright infringement monitoring tools. A victory could also force YouTube and other companies in this space to create new monitoring tools better suited to the needs of smaller content providers. Needless to say, either of these consequences would require significant technological investments. On the other hand, if YouTube successfully defends itself against the purported class’s claims, the online video-sharing community will likely carry on unfazed.