There has been a recent trend of seemingly well-intentioned musicians taking to Twitter to engage with critics of the seriously flawed Copyright Directive, and in particular Article 13. Whatever the content of their arguments, it almost inevitably boils down to some kind of accusation that whoever disagrees with them is ‘just an academic’, a ‘big tech apologist’, or someone that doesn’t understand or appreciate what it’s like to be an independent musician.
I’ve been on the receiving end of these kind of claims, to the point that engaging any further became fruitless. Simply by dint of my position as a legal academic/employee of a tech company, the claim is that I must have an inherent bias that clouds my ability to critically analyse how copyright law will impact artists, because I am not a musician.
The thing is, I am a musician, and have been for almost 20 years. I sing and play guitar in a grunge band called Closet Organ, who successfully crowdfunded our last album, which included a vinyl LP release. I make chip-music and have played live as unexpected bowtie in places as far flung as London and Osaka. There’s also the innumerable other projects including the ‘bizarre and disturbing’ electronica of cup fungus, the scuzzy pop of Hog Wild, and the chilled out samplewave of ease and desist. I’ve personally put on a pile of gigs, been on tour as a music photographer more than a few times, was Review Editor of a fairly significant indie zine, and currently run my own underground tape label Cow Tongue Taco Records. I loved and played music long before I ever took a law class, or was employed by… well, anybody.
Safe to say, I have some investment in independent music.
Why ContentID doesn’t work for independent artists
For those not familiar with Article 13 of the proposed EU Copyright Directive, the long and short is that it will effectively require service providers such as Facebook to implement content filtering systems to detect and remove/prevent the upload of material that belongs to another party. YouTube already has a similar system in place – by far the largest and most complicated of its kind in the world – but the Directive would massively extend its reach.
There are numerous and detailed criticisms of Article 13, but all of them seem to fall on deaf ears as they come from the perceived position of a ‘corporate shill’, so here I want to briefly outline just one major issue that independent artists experience with the current ContentID system – and why any kind of expansion will inevitably be damaging rather than of benefit.
If an independent artist wants to get their music out there into the world, to the most popular music sharing sites, they need to use some kind of recognised distributor – as direct submissions are either impossible, or extremely restricted. A pile of these have sprung up, including Amuse, RouteNote, DistroKid, etc. Some charge a subscription fee per year, some take a cut of any revenue generated, and some of them don’t even have a website – operating just from an app. The concept is simple: You send your music to them, and they distribute it digitally to the various partners. One of these partners is YouTube.
What isn’t made clear by these distribution networks is that by submitting your music to YouTube, you essentially give the distributor a licence to enforce your copyright on the platform using the ContentID system. This automatically detects any music uploaded along with a YouTube video (including short clips), and flags it up as unauthorised. To many this might sound great. Stop people stealing your stuff!
The problem of course is that there is very often no way to denote authorised uses or channels with these common distribution services. Let’s consider the following two scenarios:
Scenario A: a young singer songwriter starts to build up a decent following online, by sharing clips on SoundCloud and YouTube. With the money they’ve made from the ads on their DIY videos, they put together a full-length album and use one of the most popular distribution services to make it available on Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon, YouTube etc. As they get more and more well known, they dig deep and fund a really flashy music video to promote the album. After teasing it on Facebook and Twitter, they upload it only to find that it has immediately been flagged for a copyright violation – on behalf of the distributor. The video won’t necessarily come down, but it does mean that they won’t be able to monetise it – and will lose out on the ad revenue they were expecting to recoup the cost of the production. Panicked, they dispute the claim using YouTube’s resolution procedure, but there’s no indication of how long that might take, and it has thrown off all of the promotions they were planning. There’s no explanation of this anywhere in the distributor’s app that they used, and they can’t get a hold of anybody who understands the issue and has access to release the video for commercial use.
Scenario B: An artist (A) is asked by a fellow musician (B) if they would be interested in a collaboration. The process is simple: B will supply A with some vocal samples that A can then chop up and use however they wish. A gladly accepts, and comes up with a whole electronic composition that brings the vocals to life. B loves the track, and asks if they can use it on their upcoming DIY release. A agrees. B’s friend runs a small label who agrees to put out the album, and they use a distribution service which sends the album to all the major partners automatically – including YouTube’s ContentID system. A few years later, A is producing short video blogs and decides to use one of their old tracks as background music. It gets flagged up as a copyright violation automatically, which A disputes – but the appeal is rejected by the distributor, who has no knowledge of how the track came about in the first place.
Both of these scenarios are common, and a version of B actually happened to me personally. There are plenty of other similar situations, which are easily discoverable with a bit of Googling.
There are a few takeaways here:
- Independent musicians are at the mercy of a system which locks them out from negotiating their own contracts without major label backing, and they therefore have to rely on gatekeepers which provide an inadequate level of information and control over their own music.
- Artists who are starting out lack the information required in order to make informed decisions about their interaction with such services, and can inadvertently give away their ability to exploit their creations commercially due to how the systems are constructed.
- The ContentID approach to copyright enforcement gives huge clout to the first entity to register a piece of work within their system – which is rarely going to be the artist themselves.
- This model has no room for the ad-hoc, informal, and varying ways in which independent musicians create and share their works online.
The current ContentID system works on a first-come, first-served basis. It puts huge power in the hands of intermediary distribution services which do not provide a service that can ever give artists the amount of control over their licenses they would require to fully exploit their creations. The nature of the beast means that informal collaborations between like-minded folks can unexpectedly tie up their creative expression years down the road. Article 13 will only expand these systems, which will inevitably be less sophisticated on other platforms than ContentID. Independent artists lose the ability to share their work even further.
So… as an academic, a tech employee, but perhaps most importantly a musician: Article 13 is a disastrous piece of law, and should be scrapped.