Ustream Apologizes For Shutting Down The Hugo Awards Livestream, Says It Will ‘Recalibrate’

Maybe you haven’t heard of the Hugo Awards, but to science fiction geeks, especially print science fiction geeks, they’re a big deal. They’re given out at the World Science Fiction Convention, and as io9’s Annalee Newitz writes, they’re “kind of like the Academy Awards,” where “careers are made; people get dressed up and give speeches; and celebrities rub shoulders with (admittedly geeky) paparazzi.”

Of course, not everyone can attend the convention, held this year in Chicago, but for those of us who couldn’t, we had a chance to follow along the ceremonies last night thanks to live video via Ustream (I probably would’ve been watching if I wasn’t taking my mom out to dinner). Or at least, fans had a chance to watch the beginning of the ceremony, up until Neil Gaiman was accepting his award in the Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form category. That’s when the broadcast shut off abruptly, and the account was supposedly “banned due to copyright infringement.”

Mostly likely, the infringement alarms were set off by the clips of nominated TV show episodes that were shown before the award was announced — which, as Newitz notes, was silly, since the studios provided the clips for the ceremony, and showing short clips should be protected by fair use anyway. The incident was, as you can imagine, a bummer for science fiction fans, but beyond that, it also suggests Ustream’s infringement-detection system was overreacting. That’s especially problematic on a livestreaming site, where taking time to sort out situations like this can mean you’ve missed the window to broadcast something live.

Also, if you’re going to halt a live broadcast, you might not want to do it when a bestselling author with more than 1.7 million Twitter followers takes the stage.

Ustream CEO Brad Hunstable has published a blog post apologizing for the incident. He says the company relies on a service called Vobile to monitor for infringing content, and yes, the system was automatically triggered by the show clips. He adds:

Our editorial team and content monitors almost immediately noticed a flood of livid Twitter messages about the ban and attempted to restore the broadcast. Unfortunately, we were not able to lift the ban before the broadcast ended. We had many unhappy viewers as a result, and for that I am truly sorry.

Hunstable notes that if the convention organizers had a paid for a Pro account, this wouldn’t have happened, because those accounts are “automatically white listed to avoid situations like this.” The “pay us and this won’t happen again” argument may not win people over, but maybe this will: “I have suspended use of this third-party system until we are able to recalibrate the settings so that we can better balance the needs of broadcasters, viewers, and copyright holders.”

So it’s not just an apology — it’s a commitment to do better.