Copyright law is two things: a gnostically complex rubric for deciding who can reproduce a work of art, and one of the most powerful legal forces on the internet. But precisely how complex and how powerful? Well, enough that a major law school thought it might lose its YouTube channel in a copyright dispute over a video explaining copyright law.
Last year, the NYU School of Law held a conference on intellectual property, including a panel about music copyright. When musicians sue each other for stealing songs, their cases hinge on a fascinating and intricate analysis of rhythm, style, and uniqueness. The panelists illustrated this with seconds-long clips of several famous songs — sometimes unaltered, sometimes stripped down to individual elements like bass lines. Then, as explained in this blog post, several increasingly ridiculous things happened.
- Like any number of conference organizers, the NYU School of Law posted a video of the talk on its YouTube channel. This was fine.
- Two months later, NYU reposted a slightly edited version with the same audio track. This was apparently not fine.
- YouTube sent the channel a laundry list of Content ID violations, with labels claiming clips from the likes of Ed Sheeran and Beyoncé.
- NYU argued that the video was fair use because, seriously, it’s an hour-long conference panel where two professional musicologists who testified in one of the most important copyright fights of the ‘10s talk through PowerPoint slides full of charts.
- YouTube passed the dispute back to the rights holders, who declared that NYU — more specifically, the part of NYU composed of people whose job is knowing about copyright law — was still infringing on their copyright with several song clips.
- The conference organizers decided to file a counterclaim for the four songs. (Fittingly, this included Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”) But if they lost, they realized, they could incur a copyright strike for the video — or possibly four strikes, one for each song. After three strikes, a YouTube channel can be terminated. Unfortunately, they weren’t sure how YouTube would interpret its policy, and depending on the answer, NYU Law School’s entire video archive could be wiped out.
The months-long story has a happy ending because NYU got directly in touch with YouTube and the claims were dropped. And while YouTube didn’t confirm this at the time, a spokesperson told The Verge that you can only get one copyright strike for a single video, no matter how many songs are claimed in it. The spokesperson acknowledged, however, that YouTube is now working to explain this more clearly online.
But as the post notes:
This would have been a dead end for most users. Unable to understand how the already opaque dispute resolution process might impact the status of their account, they would have to decide if it was worth gambling their entire YouTube account on the chances that their some combination of YouTube and the rightsholder would recognize their fair use claim.
So why does something like this happen? Partly because YouTube’s moderation system is vast, impersonal, and semi-automated, despite being “likely the most expensive and sophisticated copyright enforcement system ever created.” And partly because US copyright law often works on a “guilty until proven innocent” philosophy — and Congress is debating approaches to make sites adopt even harsher policies or risk legal liability.
The internet can be a nightmare for artists whose work gets ripped and copied across big platforms. But there’s also a cost to treating every song clip as illegal by default — and in this case, we’d have lost a great look at one of the weirdest parts of the music industry.