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This article was published on February 27, 2012

A copyright claim on chirping birds highlights the flaws of YouTube’s automated system

A copyright claim on chirping birds highlights the flaws of YouTube’s automated system
Nancy Messieh
Story by

Nancy Messieh

Lesotho-born and raised, Nancy Messieh, The Next Web's Middle East Editor, is an Egyptian writer and photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. Fol Lesotho-born and raised, Nancy Messieh, The Next Web's Middle East Editor, is an Egyptian writer and photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. Follow her on Twitter, her site or Google+ or get in touch at [email protected]

You can barely hear the birds chirping in this YouTube video of a man picking some fresh ingredients for a wild salad, and yet that very sound has been identified as copyrighted material, belonging to music company, Rumblefish.

YouTube user eeplox posted this to Google’s YouTube help forum a couple of days ago:

I posted a video which is basically just me walking and talking, outdoors, away from any possible source of music.

And apparently youtube identified my video as containing copyrighted music from a company called rumblefish. I filed a dispute, and now I’m waiting for said company to respond to it. Is this a freak occurrence? I feel pretty violated by this, a mysterious entity claiming to own my content and apparently profiting from it with ads.

There are birds singing in the background in the video, could they own the rights to birdsong?

It sounds almost too bizarre to be true, but comments on the post would indicate that this isn’t the first time this has happened, with YouTube’s automated system laying claim to nature’s sounds. In fact, according to eeplox, the system mistakenly identified the bird sounds, not only as copyrighted, but also as a musical composition.

The very problem is that YouTube uses an entirely automated system to scan for copyright claims, and while YouTube users can dispute the claims, any company that says the content belongs to them, can dispute right back. Independent YouTube users, like eeplox, are left in the middle.

A discussion on Reddit about the topic reveals that it’s not just nature’s sounds that are caught in the copyright trap. One Reddit user states he’s had similar experiences with videos take on his motorcycle, saying that the sound of the motorcycle engine triggers the system.

A Rumblefish representative, “Paul”, has left a comment on the Reddit thread, placing the blame entirely on YouTube’s system:

We (Rumblefish) didn’t claim it as anything actually. The YouTube Content ID system, ID’d the song and associated it with one of our artists / labels. I found out about this a few hours ago, watched the video myself and there was clearly no music in it at all….only birdsong. I hit up the right person on our team to remove the claim and it was removed earlier tonight. We don’t know why YT claimed birdsong as one of our artists songs. It’s confusing.

The comment, however, has done nothing to appease any angry, if possibly misguided, Reddit audience who have taken after Paul with a vengeance.

This calls into question the use of any automated system for copyrighted material. While as one commenter points out, Google is simply following the law, is that reason enough to cut it some slack? It’s one thing to enforce copyright laws, but it’s entirely something else to depend on a system that can’t differentiate between a piece of music and birds chirping.

This may seem like a harmless mistake, or an inconvenience, but it has far more serious consequences for YouTube users who are incorrectly accused of copyright infringement. If a video triggers the system, monetization on your entire channel will be disabled – so that’s potential revenue lost over a false claim.

So why is this such a common occurrence? Some users believe that copyright claimants, with no reference to Rumblefish, have learned to game the system. One commenter said:

I experienced this in one of my videos. My video has no background music at all. Just my voice. The complaint is not from Rumblefish though, it is from Music Publishing Rights Collecting Society. As you can see, it is a generic name. I believe that they’re gaming the system to earn money from your hard work.

According to ghacks, not only can YouTube users see monetization of their channel disabled, the copyright claimant can ad advertising to profit off of personal videos.

Some of the comments in the YouTube forum have been gone so far as to bring SOPA into the equation, with one user saying:

This just proves the point of Internet blackout day and all of the anti-ACTA/SOPA/PIPA demonstrations – as soon as someone has the power to restrict access or remove content, it is used in a careless and lazy way which will generally punish the people who are doing nothing wrong.

This is a reminder of just how essential it was that Internet users fight the advancement of Internet regulations such as SOPA.

When it comes to restrictions or censorship, the line can often be blurred, and the way in which regulations are enforced can let things go too far. In the case of YouTube, a simple tweak of the system may be all that is needed.

Do you think YouTube is at fault or is it simply a harmless glitch in the system? Let us know what you think in the comments.

Update: It would appear that Rumblefish itself also played a role in upholding the copyright infringement claim, after it was reviewed by an employee. A post from eeplox on Slashdot reads:

“I make nature videos for my YouTube channel, generally in remote wilderness away from any possible source of music. And I purposely avoid using a soundtrack in my videos because of all the horror stories I hear about Rumblefish filing claims against public domain music. But when uploading my latest video, YouTube informed me that I was using Rumblefish’s copyrighted content, and so ads would be placed on my video, with the proceeds going to said company. This baffled me. I disputed their claim with YouTube’s system — and Rumblefish refuted my dispute, and asserted that: ‘All content owners have reviewed your video and confirmed their claims to some or all of its content: Entity: rumblefish; Content Type: Musical Composition.’ So I asked some questions, and it appears that the birds singing in the background of my video are Rumblefish’s exclusive intellectual property.”

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