How The EU May Be About To Kill The Public Domain: Copyright Filters Takedown Beethoven


Over in the EU Parliament, they're getting ready to vote yet again on the absolutely terrible Copyright Directive, which has serious problems for the future of the internet, including Article 13's mandatory censorship filters and Article 11's link tax. Regrading the mandatory filters, German music professor Ulrich Kaiser, has written about a a very disturbing experiment he ran on YouTube, in which he kept having public domain music he had uploaded for his students get taken down by ContentID copyright claims.

After exploring ways to teach his students Beethoven's music, and putting together a collection of public domain recordings, he encountered the following thanks to YouTube's filters:

The first video I uploaded to YouTube promoted the website where my digitized copies of public domain recordings are available to download. In this video, I explained my project, while examples of the music played in the background. Less than three minutes after uploading, I received a notification that there was a ContentID claim against my video. ContentID is a system, developed by YouTube, which checks user uploaded videos against databases of copyrighted content in order to curb copyright infringement. This system took millions of dollars to develop and is often pointed to as a working example of upload filters by rights holders and lawmakers who wish to make such technology mandatory for every website which hosts user content online. However, these claims ignore the widespread reports of its often flawed execution.

That inspired him to test this more thoroughly... and you'll absolutely guess what happened next:

I decided to open a different YouTube account “Labeltest” to share additional excerpts of copyright-free music. I quickly received ContentID notifications for copyright-free music by Bartok, Schubert, Puccini and Wagner. Again and again, YouTube told me that I was violating the copyright of these long-dead composers, despite all of my uploads existing in the public domain. I appealed each of these decisions, explaining that 1) the composers of these works had been dead for more than 70 years, 2) the recordings were first published before 1963, and 3) these takedown request did not provide justification in their property rights under the German Copyright Act.

I only received more notices, this time about a recording of Beethoven’s Symphony No.5, which was accompanied by the message: “Copyrighted content was found in your video. The claimant allows its content to be used in your YouTube video. However, advertisements may be displayed.” Once again, this was a mistaken notification. The recording was one by the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Lorin Maazel, which was released in 1961 and is therefore in the public domain. Seeking help, I emailed YouTube, but their reply, “[…] thank you for contacting Google Inc. Please note that due to the large number of enquiries, e-mails received at this e-mail address support-de@google.com cannot be read and acknowledged” was less than reassuring.

And, again, this is in the strongest situation for filters to test themsevles. Google has spent more resources and money on ContentID than on any other filter. It's been tested much more thoroughly than just about any other filter out there. And music is one of the easiest cases to match. And yet, it still got it all wrong. And it caused significant collateral damage:

I wish I could tell you that the ending to this tale was wholly happy. It is true that many of my contestations of these copyright violations were successful, and the videos were not taken down from YouTube. However, I intended to release all of my videos under a free license, so that they could be used in the future for others to educate and inform students about these beautiful works. Even in cases where my defense to the ContentID claims were successful, the videos were not reverted to this free license, making it much more difficult for others to use and share these digitized works in the way I originally had intended.

Now expand this out to other kinds of content, which aren't as easy to match. Or companies who don't have $60 million to spend on filters. Or where companies don't have the time to review every disputed takedown. And what do you end up with? A serious impact on the public domain (not to mention fair use, parody and more).

And here's the thing: mandatory filters are totally unnecessary. Most large platforms already have invested in ContentID-like systems. It's the smaller sites and the upstarts who can't afford such a thing. So all Article 13 will really do is lock in YouTube/Google as the dominant player. And maybe that's what the RIAA and their friends really want: they believe that as long as there's just one other big company they can sit across a table and demand cash from, that'll somehow cover up for the fact that it sold its members a bill of goods about the internet for the past couple of decades. But, it will do enormous harm to creativity and content creators in the long run.