Why not make Content ID more accessible and transparent?

Much has been written about YouTube’s Content ID program, a fingerprinting technology that allows rights holders to find and claim their music or movies when uploaded to YouTube.  The technology was introduced in 2008 in the wake of Viacom’s lawsuit against YouTube and since then has helped (some) creators mitigate the problem of piracy on the popular UGC (user-generated content) site.

Those who have access to the Content ID system can uploaded reference files and use a dashboard to choose how matches should be handled.  They can be limited based on audio, video, and length.  Matching content then can be blocked, removed, or monetized based on territorial rights.

I’ve written many pieces about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to Content ID so I won’t be redundant here, but this week I read some pieces which highlight some lingering issues that continue to limit the reach (and effectiveness) of this technology–most notably limited access and accountability.

Are audiobooks being ignored?

Author  published a piece in The Observer asking, “When Will YouTube Deal With Its Audiobook and Podcast Piracy Problem?”  He described how using search, he’d found the audio version of one of his books streaming, in full, on YouTube.  The audio had been streamed 16,000 times.  He observed, “It might not seem like a ton but the book had sold about 50,000 copies in audio—an additional 30% of that figure pirated it through a single video?”

Holiday goes on to repeat the oft-heard lament of filmmakers, musicians, et al who have found their pirated works streaming on YouTube.  Like many of them, Holiday believes YouTube needs to make it easier for artists to protect their creations from this type of theft:

For its part, YouTube needs to get its act together and offer tools directly to publishers and authors. Audiobook piracy is real and clearly growing. The idea that songs and television and films all deserve protections from Content ID but authors don’t is absurd.

Now, to be fair, it’s not clear that Holiday himself has ever applied for Content ID access. It seems that the YouTube’s language dissuaded him.

I can continue to file these claims as the author but since I’m not a major publisher with a “substantial body of original material,” I can’t participate in YouTube’s Content ID personally.

If I were an author (or publisher) I would not hesitate to at least try to apply for a Content ID account.  I had no difficulty being approved for a Content ID account in 2010 and only own the rights to two films, a feature and a documentary that I co-produced.  The companies that distribute my film also have Content ID for their film catalogues.

 According to YouTube, acceptance is based on:

…an evaluation of each applicant’s actual need for the tools. Applicants must be able to provide evidence of the copyrighted content for which they control exclusive rights…Content ID applicants may be rejected if other tools better suit their needs

The key here is the last sentence.  There’s also Content Verification which seems to be another, higher tier of Content ID aimed at large companies.  The other “tool” is simply sending a takedown via web form.  That may be appropriate in very limited situations, but using it can be time-consuming and also requires a rights holder be proactive in searching for infringing content. Since Content ID does that work for you it’s the key reason it should be made available on a much wider scale.  As Holiday noted, one copy of his book was accessed thousands of times….shouldn’t the onus be on YouTube to put a roadblock up to prevent infringement?  Why should creators be required to be copyright cops too?

Lack of transparency has long been a flash point for musicians vs. YouTube

Frustration over YouTube’s Content ID and monetization scheme was also at the core of a blog post by 5-time Grammy winner, musician Maria Schneider published on Music Tech Policy.   Schneider has become a strong advocate for artists rights and attacks Content ID on a number of levels including skewering YouTube over its lack of transparency (a common complaint among many musicians) and for its apparent refusal to grant access to artists–even those like her–who are Grammy recipients.

Content ID is reserved for big record companies with big catalogues, and probably selected independent artists whom YouTube believes will make YouTube a heap of money…In the press, YouTube has fought back against the recent flood of criticism, saying that all rights-holders can access Content ID – that they can get it through “third-party vendors.”  These third party vendors often take between 20% to 50% of the revenue paid by YouTube—after YouTube takes its share.

I highly recommend reading Schneider’s post for her account of how Content ID has failed her and other musicians.  As a filmmaker, in terms of using Content ID simply to combat piracy, my experiences have differed, but I do share many of her overall concerns.  Unfortunately, the fact she (and others) are apparently being denied direct access to Content ID tools is an ongoing issue that inflames the lingering, legitimate mistrust creators have with Google.

Does it really need to be this way?

In spite of years of ongoing complaints like these, neither Google nor YouTube seem really to have made a genuine effort to work with artists–instead preferring to stonewall or sidestep debate.  When YouTube officials do comment, they often find themselves tangled up in webs of their own making, as was the case when musician Zoe Keating took them to task in a very public exchange.  Why not work with creators to solve some of these problems instead of demonizing them?  There are ways to find common ground if only the powers that be at Google would care to (really) listen.

Content ID could make it easier for creators of all stripes to ask permission instead of simply taking content

Moving the Content ID machinery out of the shadows could pay dividends in other ways–perhaps by helping bridge the divide in disputes over copyright.   Maarten Zeinstra, an “advisor on copyright and technology” recently penned a thoughtful blog post proposing that YouTube’s Content ID could become a useful tool for those who interested in utilizing content in legitimate ways.  His piece, “YouTube should open up Content ID” was published this past May on the Dutch website, Kennisland.  In it, Zeinstra noted:

YouTube should open up Content ID and make their register of rights holders publicly available...Let anyone be able to contact the rights owners of a certain clip or publicly contest that ownership. This creates an innovative new possibility in using content with permission or under copyright exceptions, and create legal certainty for copyright holders and remixers alike.

Now, I’m a tad skeptical as to what he means by “contest that ownership” but I’m open to the possibility that he’s merely describing a middle ground.  If someone wants to make a mashup video using clips from my film or segments of archival footage from my documentary they could use Content ID to find that I am the rightful owner of the footage and can ask permission.  Personally, I support the idea of fair use but also appreciate the fact that one should ask permission.  I did so with footage used in my documentary and was always met with a positive response.  Perhaps opening up Content ID in this way could foster a new respect for the work of creators and support the idea of asking, and not simply taking.

Improving Content ID would be in everyone’s best interests

Clearly, Google needs to do a much better job in providing access and accountability with its Content ID and monetization programs.  Expand outreach to indie artists.  Include them in discussions about how to improve Content ID.  Update the interface to make it more intuitive and user-friendly.   Open the books so that creators can see exactly how much revenue is earned and where it goes.  Be innovative and use Content ID to open new avenues to legitimate use of copyrighted content.

There’s little doubt that YouTube’s Content ID is a powerful tool that’s in dire need of an overhaul, both in terms of who uses it and how it’s used.  This technology could provide so much more than it now does–but the ball is in Google’s court.   I won’t hold my breath waiting for something to change–but there’s always hope isn’t there?