YouTube announced yesterday that it would start, in specific cases, paying the legal fees of users issued orders to take down their content. It seems an odd choice, but Google has a specific reason; it’s the first step to addressing the worst problem on YouTube.
One of the key laws governing pretty much everything we post on the Internet is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA. Under the DMCA, if you spot something online that you believe illegally uses your content, you can issue a takedown notice to the site hosting it. If you’ve ever seen a frowny face instead of a video on YouTube, it was probably due to a DMCA takedown.
There is an exception to this, called “fair use.” Under fair use, you can use excerpts of a work for parody or critical purposes. For example, you couldn’t repost a whole movie to your YouTube channel, but you could use short snippets of it to illustrate your criticisms of that movie.
If you’re familiar with the Internet at all, you’ve likely already guessed the problem: Abuse of the DCMA takedown is rampant, while fair use is ignored, and it’s led to some truly absurd legal cases. For example, Bjorn Lynne sold some music to an audiobook company, only to discover that, under the automated systems of Universal Music Group, because Universal published the audiobook, it thought it had legal claim on his music and began taking the revenue from his YouTube channel. Nor does it stop there: There’s no punishment for issuing a false DMCA takedown, so it’s a popular way to harass people online. Imagine for a moment if a company could, successfully, remove videos from the Internet proving their product is dangerous. That’s why use of the DMCA needs to change, and why YouTube has stepped in.
This announcement boils down to telling DMCA abusers that they’d better have a lawyer. Unsurprisingly, once the idea of losing actual money comes into play, most DMCA abusers back off, at least temporarily.
Misuse of the DMCA is easily YouTube’s biggest problem, so stepping up to protect those who were fairly using other’s content is a big deal that will, in the long term, improve the site. Everyone will be able to use YouTube for the free exchange of ideas, and not worry about getting sued.