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Grammy-winning musician and congressional witness calls YouTube a criminal racketeer

maria schneider 300wIncreasingly vocal critics of YouTube have a heroic new champion, not new to the cause, but willing to dramatically escalate its rhetoric.

Five-time Grammy-winner Maria Schneider is a board member of the Council of Music Creators and testified before Congress in 2014 about copyright infringement on YouTube. This past weekend Schneider released her response to the U.S. Copyright Office’s request for comments in its examination of the “safe harbor” clause of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Her comments are excoriating, but just a first act to the lacerating open letter to YouTube composed by Schneider.

Both documents are meaty, detailed, and blazingly critical. Together they comprise the harshest and most articulate indictment of YouTube, a stance taken by an increasing number of music rights-holders who have been speaking out more this year than ever before against YouTube’s position in the music ecosystem..

At question is YouTube’s founding premise which encourages user uploads, the business model which monetizes the platform with video ads, and the methods by which copyright-busting music uploads are handled. YouTube is, by a gigantic margin, the world’s most powerful distributor of music recordings. Its proprietary Content ID technology, a type of audio fingerprinting, serves to identify music on the platform for rights-holders who are accepted into the watchdog system. By that means, or by constant manual searching, musicians and labels can uncover infringing uploads and issue take-down notices to Google (or leave the infringing content in place and take a share of advertising revenue).

“YouTube is guilty of criminal racketeering,” Maria Schneider declares in her open letter, published on the MUSIC TECHNOLOGY POLICY site. “YouTube has thoroughly twisted, contorted, and abused the original meaning of the outdated DMCA ‘safe harbor’ to create a massive income redistribution scheme, where income is continually transferred from the pockets of musicians and creators of all types, and siphoned directly into their own pockets.”

That is the letter’s thesis, detailed with seven ways in which Schneider believes YouTube has distorted the letter and spirit of the safe harbor law. Safe harbor was included in the DMCA to preserve open platforms designed for user uploading and unfettered sharing. The law requires owners of those platforms to quickly respond to compliant take-down requests. There is a complementary requirement that platform operators not exert any editorial control of the uploaded content — in other words, YouTube, Soundcloud, Vimeo, and other players in this field must maintain a basic ignorance of what is being uploaded until notified of potential infringement.

Schneider believes that YouTube violates safe harbor principles every step of the way. She bolsters her accusation of intentional wrong-doing by attaching quotes from Google employees before the YouTube acquisition, including horrified exclamations of YouTube’s perceived illegalities. Those quotes were presented as evidence in a four-year legal battle between Viacom and YouTube, which was settled before any court determination.

Maria Schneider also complains that many creators cannot join the Content ID system; that when YouTube takes down infringing content it seems to publicly blame the rights-holder instead of the uploader; and that rights-holders must sign a YouTube TOS (Terms of Service) document before YouTube will take down the infringing content. In all, Schneider accuses Google of adding operational components and requirements in its execution of the DMCA’s safe harbor which combine to make life easy for the uploader and difficult for a complaining musician.

Schneider’s submission to the Copyright Office is less punchy and imaginatively insulting than the open letter, which asserts that YouTube suffers from a mental illness called Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. (“They’re not only evil, they’re sick.”) Still, the Copyright Office submission is 22 pages long and prescribes basic remedies which include:

  • Educate users on copyright.
  • Make Content ID more widely available.
  • “Take down” should mean “stay down” so musicians are freed from endlessly complaining about identical infringements.

Irving Azoff recently aimed his rhetorical armament at YouTube (using the same “take down” / “stay down” language, which is developing into a meme-ish battle cry), and that open letter was opposed by Christophe Muller, head of YouTube partnerships, who claimed that Content ID handles 99.5% of rights issues with nearly infallible efficacy.

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Brad Hill

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