In the past week, two major events that aired coverage of their event live over the internet was blocked, not by hackers, but by automated computer programs (“bots”) created to stop the unauthorized digital airing of copyrighted material. In order to avoid the wraith of copyright owners, live streaming websites utilize computer programs that use an algorithm to determine if copyrighted material is being broadcast through their website. The bots assume that the website does not have the copyrights, and thus shuts down the live feed immediately. That’s right, copyright owners have been thwarted by the very centurions tasked to protect their copyright.
On Sunday, September 2, the company providing the live streaming of the science-fiction themed Hugo Awards at Worldcon, abruptly cut the feed in the middle an acceptance speech by author Neil Gaiman. Usteam, the company providing the live stream, use bots to shut down any steam that contains copyright infringement. Before Gaiman, who won an award for a Dr. Who television script, went to the stage, the ceremony aired a video of short clips, including portions of Dr. Who that Gaiman wrote. At this point, Ustream’s computer programs shut down the broadcast, angering many users. Ustream apologized for the inconvenience, blaming the problem on a third party.
A few days later, the same issue cropped up on YouTube, which streamed the Democratic National Convention. This time these computer bots ended the feed during First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech, blocking future replays of the event. Officials at DNC and YouTube claim that none of Tuesday’s events were cut short, and that future event days will not have the same technical problems.
So this week’s episode highlights a problem many media companies have when they attempt to zealously guard their copyrights by issuing takedown notices. As Techdirt points out, the companies claiming copyright infringement include a few media companies who have no compunction about prematurely taking down videos before determining if they own the copyright to those videos. Remember that last year, much of the furor over the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA), was due to the fear that companies would abuse takedown notices.
Even though SOPA is long-dead, these incidents illustrate that there is still a problem with the methods we currently use to fight copyright piracy. While it is important that copyright holders safeguard their rights, but it is also important to allow for Fair Use of copyrighted material. To paraphrase the Roman poet Juvenal, “Oh, who watches the watchmen when the watchmen are watching what you’re watching on YouTube?”