Regular readers know that YouTube-related questions and concerns -- particularly copyright related -- are routine appearances within my inbox, and that the issues surrounding online videos are decidedly complex.
Many observers are dissatisfied with the overall status quo when it comes to striking a balance between those parties who claim rights to content, vs. users who upload videos. Outside the realm of totally false claims, a significant grey area exists, especially relating to public domain materials, "nested" videos, fair use, and "incidental" inclusions of various sorts, among other associated matters.
None of these issues are amenable to "quick" fixes. However, incremental improvements are very important.
So I'm pleased to note that based on very useful discussions I've had with YouTube recently, it's quite clear that Google's YouTube is continuing work to evolve their copyright-related systems as much as possible within the boundaries of existing related laws.
One example of this is a new YouTube feature (now in beta) that you probably don't know about. Introduced without any fanfare last month (and so still in a very early stage) it's the nifty new YouTube "Song Remover" (or song "eraser" if you prefer), the public help/information page for which has now gone live.
While the YouTube Song Remover (YSR) doesn't address the underlying legal issues -- which are beyond the scope of any single entity, including YouTube, to change unilaterally -- YSR does provide a very useful new option to deal with an unfortunately relatively common problem -- original YouTube video content that used background music claimed by a third party.
Up until now, the use of such music could trigger an automatic Content ID hit, which could then result in third-party ads running with the video, or the audio track of the video being muted, or the video being blocked in some or all regions of the world (depending on a number of criteria and the claimed rights holder's choices). And when a Content ID hit has been triggered, the entire video has been affected.
An obvious problem here is that blocking of an entire video, or even deleting just the audio track, also can wipe out non-infringing video and audio. A classic example of this is a wedding video that triggers Content ID and has its entire audio track removed, or is blocked in some or all locales, or starts appearing with third-party ads -- due to the use of particular music claimed as copyrighted content, being played at the event as recorded.
YSR provides an option for many videos (remember, the feature is in early beta) that allows the uploader in some cases to strip the Content ID hit (and related blocking or other negative impacts) from their video, by removing the music in question but leaving all other audio (and the video) intact.
What this means in practice -- after applying YSR on a video -- is that where there was only the claimed music there will now be silence, and where there was that music as background with foreground voices, cheers, or other audio, the music will be removed but the foreground audio will remain intact. A video that had been flagged by Content ID that is then run by the uploader through this process may then have its Content ID hit expunged.
This is a rather cool and decidedly nontrivial process to accomplish. And while it can't fix the broad scope of copyright claims and counterclaims, it does offer an extremely useful alternative to the ways in which Content ID has impacted many videos up to now.
Above all, this approach demonstrates that Google/YouTube is seriously working to try provide more flexibility for uploaders, especially in these kinds of situations. While such technically-oriented approaches can't and aren't meant to address the underlying legal complexities surrounding copyright and fair use, they are extremely important incremental steps, and should prove very useful to many YouTube users, even as efforts continue to work toward more encompassing policy solutions related these areas.
Kudos to the YouTube teams for this work!
In his new article Google vs. the press: avoiding the lose-lose scenario, Frédéric Filloux sets forth a cogent review of the current battles between the French government allied with French media firms -- against Google and other large Internet services firms. He suggests that to avoid long-term damage to everyone involved, the parties need to come to an agreement where Google and other successful Internet companies would essentially "share the wealth" with traditional media concerns and the like.
Filloux's argument is not trivially dismissed -- yet in the end remains problematic and extremely worrisome. For the logical extension of the scenario he proposes could easily lead to the global decimation of key Internet aspects on which we depend today, and enormous new costs for ordinary users.
His argument that existing taxation regimes permit large corporations to shield significant income is not one without merit. But this taxation situation has existed in one form or another for quite a long time, and involves large firms engaged in all manner of international enterprises.
Why then, do we see the French focus (and by extension that of the EU in general, other countries such as Brazil, and ultimately far more nations if such proposals are enacted) on Google and other successful Internet services businesses?
A likely answer seems obvious enough. Many so-called "old media" firms such as newspapers are struggling in the Internet era, and the French (and other) governments see both a financial and political incentive to try force successful Internet firms to subsidize rapidly obsolescent 20th century business models.
What's more, some of the new proposed "revenue enhancement" models appear to be specifically designed to be easily "gamed" for maximum government advantage. Concepts such as taxation based on "numbers of users" and "amount of user data collected" -- and similar ideas -- are much more nebulous than regimes based on corporate income or profits. One can't help but imagine the creation of a secret government department devoted to creating as many phantom Google users as possible, and sharing maximal amounts of fantasy data through those accounts -- all adding to the government's taxation take. Since ordinary Google, Facebook, and most other service accounts are free, there are few natural constraints on false account creation by a technically proficient, particularly government-sponsored effort.
Yet just because these services are free now for most users, doesn't mean that this will always be the case -- and it's the global community of Internet users themselves who stand to lose the most under the French proposals.
Already, we've recently seen a French ISP block ads as a form of extortion, to try force payments by major Internet companies to reach that ISPs' subscribers -- who of course are already paying for Internet services, as are those Internet companies themselves. But many ISPs are no longer satisfied with being "mere" access routes to the Net, and charging their customers appropriately for network growth and management. They want a slice of everyone else's pie as well, even though the ISPs haven't earned it, and even though the end result could actually be the death of free Internet services as we know them today -- a potential disaster for all but the most well-heeled users -- a new chasm of an economically forced information divide.
If the French government and its allies succeed in enforcing the kinds of regimes being proposed, the likely result would be a spread around of the world of ISPs charging every Internet service for access and demanding a cut of their profits, all manner of snail slow vs. high speed ISP-enforced Internet "ghettos" and "red light" districts, sites demanding payments from linking sites (or even from users traversing those links), and a cascading collapse of dominoes leading to very much the kind of "pay through the nose" networking environment that many of us have worked for decades specifically to avoid.
I have a great deal of sympathy for traditional media and the challenges they face in the 21st century, and I realize that the associated political and financial issues for governments are significant.
But I strongly believe that to the greatest extent practicable, we should resist attempts by governments to try turn new, successful Internet companies into mass subsidization income streams for old models which cannot find their own way in the Internet age -- with subsidization costs that would ultimately fall devastatingly on the backs of ordinary Internet users around the world.
Otherwise, we may very likely be bidding adieu to the open Internet that has been the life's work of so many, served us so well, and that has such a bright future -- while we'd be self-destructively killing the goose that laid the golden eggs as well.
Ça ne tient pas debout!
There are days when sitting down to write is a joy. This isn't one of them.
I've been accused of pacing like a caged animal while thinking, and of my initial observable reactions to tragedy seeming more analytical than emotional.
And truth be told, today I have indeed worn a deep furrow in my cage, and my protective channeling of Mr. Spock is very much in full bloom. There's time for crying later.
In the case of Aaron Swartz's suicide at age 26, we begin at the end of the story, can flashback to origins, and in doing so we find a very broad, and to some extent largely predictable, cast of characters and events.
Entangled with the immediate horror of Aaron's death are a set of ironies suitable for a Shakespearean drama.
It's been noted that Aaron apparently took his life two years to the day after his arrest by MIT authorities for the JSTOR-related break-ins and thefts of which he had been accused and was awaiting trial. And the fact that just a couple of days ago, it was announced that JSTOR documents would (on a limited basis) become available for free public access is also impossible to ignore. To speculate that both of these points played into Aaron's thinking, given the public knowledge that he had been struggling with depression for years before any of these events took place, seems entirely reasonable, and immensely disturbing.
But the awful irony is that none of this needed to have occurred at all.
For the ultimate outcome of the underlying battle in which Aaron and others in the "information should be free" movement have been fighting -- whether one agrees with this perspective or not -- has already been decided, and neither sacrifices nor crucifictions are likely to change the long-term course of events.
Indeed, the traditional concept of copyright and content control is already doomed by technological changes -- the ability to quickly copy, store, preserve, mirror, and communicate data around the world nearly instantaneously.
Business models predicated on limiting access to data, either by assuming time and expense in duplication and transfer, or via false confidence in fragile Digital Rights Management (DRM) and other so-called "anti-piracy" measures, are rapidly becoming zombies now, still acting as if their old status quo could last forever, while the real world passes them by.
True, this process has not proceeded as rapidly as some would like. It is, in many respects, like an enormous steamroller lumbering toward a destination that is already set and immutable. And like when dealing with a steamroller, anyone who gets in its path, either to try block its progress or even to urge it onward, runs the risk of being crushed by its plodding yet relentless movement.
It's tempting to oversimplify the tragedy in this case, but the players are many and there is painful blame to spread far and wide.
Major content producers, by pushing for the criminalization of associated "hacking" and data thefts to be treated more harshly in many cases than crimes of violence -- all to try protect their obsolete business models -- carry much of the guilt.
The politicians who then acted to create associated draconian penalties subject to overzealous invocation, and the publicity-seeking prosecutors who use prosecutorial discretion as a lethal weapon, certainly share the blame as well.
Saddest to say, Aaron himself played a major role too, voluntarily painting a giant target on his own back, not just through the scope of the unauthorized data copying of which he was accused, but by reportedly physically entering MIT network wiring closets and planting computers there for months at a time as part of the process.
That Aaron felt he was morally justified in his actions is clear -- and unfortunately irrelevant to the government's interest in "making an example" of his behaviors in particular.
And while it's obvious to virtually all observers that the government vastly overstepped the bounds of appropriate prosecution in this case, it is also sadly true that their reaction to this sort of situation -- given the recently toughened laws that had been put in place at the time -- should not have come as an enormous surprise. Remember that steamroller.
Which brings us back to the present, and the needless death of a young man who really had only begun to live.
While the sorts of theoretical maximum sentences and fines that have been discussed for his case sound very alarming, the reality is that federal sentencing guidelines, especially for relatively young first offenders, point to vastly lesser penalties, especially when the government proceeded to prosecution without the support of the technically aggrieved parties, as in this case.
But that's small comfort in the end. Nobody wants to go to prison at all, and the personal financial result from such a trial, even with the best possible outcomes for a defendant, would still probably be ruinous.
I likened all this to a Shakespearean drama earlier -- but perhaps a Greek tragedy is more apt an analogy.
When we mere imperfect mortals deem to pit even our most righteous beliefs against the timorous gods of old, it is simultaneously an act of faith and the voluntary assumption of enormous risk, for the gods of obsolescence still possess mighty powers indeed.
In the end, the old gods of information scarcity and control will indeed die, and more open models will win the future.
Until then, as the path leading to that future continues to be laid through battles yet to come, it might do us well to ponder the many killers of Aaron Swartz, and the very human guilt and frailties that we all -- each and ever one of us -- must jointly share.
Rest in peace, Aaron.