The recording industry doesn’t have the most respectable history when it comes to lawsuits. Between asking for millions for trivial acts of piracy, and asking potentially for trillions in more serious cases, they’ve shown that they’re not only completely disconnected from reality, but totally unheeding of the actual effects of their litigation. So it’s not surprising to see them tilting at yet another windmill.
Today’s target is TubeFire, a site that should be familiar to you, at least in principle. It allows you to download and convert YouTube videos to a format more easily watched offline (FLV files can be tricky). You give it the URL, it churns for a bit, and then you can download the video in MP4 or another format. Clearly this re-containering of free content is a grave threat to the recording industry, and must be stopped at all costs. So 25 of the world’s largest labels have gotten together and sued them.
TubeFire’s services are temporarily suspended pending examination of the complaint (in its place is a note apologizing and briefly describing the situation). And to be honest, the complaint is probably valid: technically, TubeFire was modifying and redistributing copyrighted material, at least so it appears on the face of it. The site is owned by Japanese media company MusicGate, and the suit was filed in Tokyo District Court. How international content protection laws will play out is beyond the purview of this article, but an international consortium of content providers is likely to make its effect felt regardless of jurisdiction.
The funny thing is that, as it so often is with these clowns, they’re not only barking up the wrong tree for a number of reasons, but they don’t seem to understand that they’re in a whole forest of wrong trees.
TubeFire is an ace away from being a perfectly legal service. To begin with, it’s plainly providing a useful service that’s only potentially a danger to copyright. Re-encoding videos to enhance portability isn’t criminal. YouTube is a fundamentally online service, and this is a natural extension of it, the way image servers and short URLs have acted for Twitter for so long. Users want to watch these videos, which for all intents and purposes are being given away for free, in places other than YouTube, for a number of perfectly legitimate reasons: bandwidth caps, coverage issues, traveling, and yes, sharing.
Next, local copies of the videos in question may already be present on the user’s computer. By simply viewing the video, it’s possible they have duplicated the whole thing in RAM or a temp folder. This writing, rewriting, renaming, and so on must count as modifying copyrighted data, mustn’t it? If not, then TubeFire isn’t much different. The video is already being encoded multiple times, transmitted as packet data, decoded and translated to display data. One more encode in there doesn’t materially affect the product.
Furthermore, is it really TubeFire doing this? Just as it is not Bittorrent Inc that pirates movies and music, TubeFire should not be held accountable for the actions of users. Terrorists used Google Maps to plan their strikes. Stalkers use Facebook to find victims. TubeFire is a simple in-out operation that corrects a minor problem with videos that users already have access to.
And let us not forget that TubeFire is one of perhaps hundreds of tools used for this purpose. They must not have looked very hard for them. Let me help, guys. I have one myself, built into my browser! I’ve buried it in the menu so it doesn’t clutter the screen, but look at how easy it is for me to grab one of many copies of a video:
Update: Mike reminds me that we in fact had our own tool for several years. YouTube sent us a cease and desist letter and eventually disabled the tool, but no one shook us down for millions in damages. It was a TOS thing, not a copyright thing.
Many of these are easily accessible just by changing the URL slightly or other simple methods. Some sites and tools strip the audio out, another extremely easy process — and one replicable, of course, by loading the YouTube video and closing your eyes.
These companies want to have their cake and allow no one to eat it at all. They don’t seem to understand that putting content on a service like YouTube comes at a price. They are making the content publicly available, free to all. They are literally giving away the content — and then they get mad when someone takes it!
The labels are seeking what appears to be statutory lost-income damages of $300 per video for an estimated 10,000 videos. That adds up to $3 million — the amount the labels would have earned if TubeFire had licensed each video. Now there are two objections here. Why is it a license and not royalties? If anything, TubeFire “rebroadcasted” the content, more like a relay station than anything, and a standard royalty fee of however many pennies or yen seems like it might be more applicable. I’m dubious on that point, however. It’s also unclear whether TubeFire knew they should have been licensing. The service does not require that information; it takes an identifier code, downloads the associated FLV file, and repackages it. Were the labels paying their artists when a file was watched, downloaded, or only when purchased? And how do they define “download”?
If the labels are in fact successful at bankrupting and shutting down TubeFire, I must warn them that the effect will be utterly nil. Any user who wants to download a video from YouTube will do so. There will be no reduction in this practice. The site is easily cloned, as the great number of similar sites shows (I can’t even remember which one is the original, if there is one). And like most of their legal actions, this one will bring down a rain of bad PR; if anything, piracy will increase. Here’s where I would put the hydra metaphor if this article weren’t already over a thousand words long.
Why, I wonder, did they not think harder about this and try something more effective and interesting? Maybe for music videos, the YouTube version is only half the song, and then there’s a link to the artist’s site, where there’s a more secure player and various buy and share links. Or release 10-second snippets on YouTube leading up the actual release elsewhere. Or just accept that when you let the cat out of the bag, you’re unlikely to get it back in. Piracy is when people steal things. Piracy is not people taking the content you gave them and watching it somewhere else. And TubeFire is nothing but a simple shortcut for actions users would be able to carry out anyway. Unfortunately, this distinction requires a judge capable of comprehending tech issues like this, and those judges are in short supply these days.
I know the music and movie associations are famously impervious to reason, but this is beyond stupid.