YouTube’s Content ID versus “The Flesh Finder”
My first dotcom job (back when it was called “dotcom”) was working for a website hosting company in the mid 90s. The company offered free website hosting to members and provided site building tools for those who didn’t want to code their own. In return, ads appeared on the member-built sites the company hosted– mainly as pop-ups. The company had a terms of service by which members had to abide, or risk having their pages deleted and their membership suspended.
I was the Abuse Manager, and my job was to handle any “abuse” of the company’s terms of service. This was done for two reasons – one, to make sure the website-building “community” remained suitable for members of all ages, and two, to prevent advertisements by known brands appearing on sites that didn’t – ahem – align with their own values and objectives.
In short, porn. I took down a lot of porn. Every morning my inbox was flooded with emails from people who had stumbled across porn sites that we were inadvertently hosting, always accompanied with a demand that I remove such offensive content immediately, which of course I did. Occasionally an advertiser would find an “offensive” site and send me something more strongly worded.
Enter The Flesh Finder
In a way, these emails from vigilant web surfers did me a favor – they practically did my job for me and spared me the indignity of having to trawl the web for porn. But that isn’t to say that the company wasn’t proactive in finding sites that violated the terms of service. One of the programmers devised what we affectionately called “The Flesh Finder,” which basically searched images for flesh tones. We had as many as five interns one summer doing nothing but taking down porn that the Flesh Finder had found.
This was before the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), when hosting sites were considered responsible for content posted by members, whether that be porn, pirated video, music downloads, copyright violations or plagarised content. In my tenure I received many angry emails from – for example – the RIAA, as well as smaller claims that images had been stolen without permission. Lawsuits were regularly threatened, but rarely seen through.
Then DMCA came into effect, in part to protect companies like mine. Post-DMCA, hosting sites are obliged to take down illegal content, but only when informed by the content owner.
YouTube’s Content ID is – if you will – the Flesh Finder equivalent. It, in theory, identifies music and user-generated videos that the rightsholder may not be aware is there – and therefore generating revenue that the artist won’t receive. But the problem with Content ID is the same as the Flesh Finder – it by no means found everything, and quite often, by the time the Flesh Finder had identified a site, it had already come my way and been taken down. It was slow, and it wasn’t 100% efficient.
Big labels believe this to be the case with Content ID, and many have cited examples of its failures in a filing to the US Copyright Office, where DMCA is currently undergoing a public consultation. Warner Music Group claim many creators know how to work around Content ID, while Universal and Sony both pay third parties to trawl YouTube for cases of copyright infringement.
“The key for labels is whether these tiny percentages – the 0.5% of Content ID cases claimed manually and the 1% of overall claims that are disputed – represent an unfair burden or not,” writes Stuart Dredge of Music Ally. But missing from these arguments – as is often the case – are the independent artists, who do not have a large label’s budget for finding what Content ID has missed, and who feel the impact of lost revenue more keenly. And Content ID is its own beast – rightsholders have to agree to YouTube’s licensing deal to use Content ID, and many artists feel the compensation is unfair.
“YouTube is paying out about a sixth of what Spotify and Apple pay artists,” Mötley Crüe co-founder Nikki Six told the Guardian. “Fans may look at this and say, ‘You guys are rich, why are you complaining, why do you want more money?’ But it’s not just a bunch of rich guys wanting more money. Quite the contrary: this is about the little guy – the up and comers that we were at one point. We were afforded the opportunities, but those opportunities will go away if we don’t get some balance. This is about the future of music.”
That future is currently up for legislative debate as DMCA and its European sister, the Electronic Commerce Directive, are under scrutiny. Last week, the new European collective licensing regulation came into effect, with claims that it makes it easier for artists and rightsholders to license their works in multiple territories. That is all well and good (if head spinning), but as long as YouTube isn’t held accountable for abuse of its systems, offering minimal compensation for works that it is actually aware of being played, then artists will continue to get a raw deal.