Robots, Copyright, and the Future of Broadcasting

Robots, Copyright, and the Future of Broadcasting

Earlier this week, the Hugo Awards show live stream was shut down for copyright infringement. It was being streamed on Ustream, and copyrighted content within Hugo’s stream (clips of the award winners) was automatically flagged by Ustream’s automated infringement system Vobile. This resulted in an immediate and automatic shutdown of the stream; it did not resume.

This is particularly terrifying for broadcasters – not so much what happened, but what it represents. Technology and corporate pressure have come crashing together and created a world where copyright law enforcement is proactive, automatic, and not conducted by law enforcement agencies.

Let’s take my situation. I work at KLRU, and our big show is Austin City Limits. We sign agreements with every artist that comes on the show, giving us the rights to broadcast the performance. We broadcast it, no one sues us, you get to watch it – it’s great.* *

Now let’s say we want to live stream that performance, like we recently did with Dr. Dog. If the artist’s songs are registered with an automated infringement system, then our legally licensed internet broadcast could be arbitrarily shut down by a third party with no knowledge of our licensing agreement.

This is unacceptable. Copyright law enforcement in the U.S. has always required initiation by the copyright holder, and has (mostly) followed our established judicial process. But now we’re moving towards a system where both the infringement judgement and punitive action are taken by the same automated system.

The Hugo Awards had the legal right to broadcast the content in question. Their broadcast was shut down anyway. Ustream has since apologized and admitted their system was wrong, but it doesn’t matter. The damage was done.

And this technology isn’t isolated. YouTube employs a similar system (Content ID) that allows copyright holders to “Choose, in advance, what they want to happen when those videos are found. Make money from them. Get stats on them. Or block them from YouTube altogether.”

Yep – your YouTube video can be auto-blocked if the robot system decides it infringes copyright, based solely on the content of your video. Fair use, licensing deals – the robots know not of these things. Also, if you’ve got a robotic copyright strike against your account, your ability to live stream is automatically suspended.

That’s going to be a great sell to an advertiser or sponsor. “We’d love your support for our live stream…which may arbitrarily be shut down by automated systems out of our control. Give us money!”

You know what? Screw it. Let’s go all the way with automated robotic enforcement. You know those robotic cameras that auto-detect gunshots? Time to make them shoot back. If you’re firing a gun in Chicago, you’re probably doing something illegal and deserve to be shot. And if you’re not, you can file a complaint.

From your hospital bed.

Where you’re stuck for the next 6 months because YOU WERE SHOT BY A ROBOT.

Automated law enforcement is idiocy. Our freedom is too important to trust to robots. Let’s take a step back, think about this for a second, and remember we used to believe that people are innocent until proven guilty.

Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat.