Let's set aside the fact that the copyright standards for a large part of the world are being set by a United States law that was written in 1998 by lawmakers who had almost no understanding of the internet and how it worked. Let's also ignore the fact that even if the DMCA was well-crafted in 1998, the online world has changed radically in the following 18 years. Let's just accept the DMCA on its own terms for the moment. While the DMCA demands plenty of things that are dumb, harmful, or unreasonable, Content ID isn't one of them.

Let's say I'm running a site where anonymous users can upload their own content. The DMCA says that if Megacorp contacts my website and claims that some user content is actually their copyrighted material, then Megacorp can't sue me as long as I take the material down right away. I'm not a fan of the DMCA, but I have to say that this provision is an improvement over what we had before. Previously, if any of my millions of users uploaded an old M*A*S*H episode, Megacorp could sue me directly as if I'd uploaded the material myself, on purpose, with intent to pirate their work for profit. In the legal system pre-DMCA, it would have been impossible to run anything like YouTube, Soundcloud, Facebook, or Imgur. If enough people uploaded copyrighted stuff, the IP owners could sue me into submission. Eventually I'd go out of business or (more likely) they would "settle" for controlling interest in my company. You think things are bad now? Imagine a world where all those sites are owned by the likes of Time Warner, Viacom, and Disney.

But the law says that if Megacorp spots offending content, YouTube is obligated to remove it. The DMCA doesn't say that YouTube is obligated to find that content themselves and tell Megacorp about it. YouTube is effectively snitching on its own users. That would be fine if Content ID actually recognized properly infringing cases, but it's a blind catch-all that flags infringement for the slightest matches.

When Megacorp sets up their account, they provide YouTube with a fingerprint of all of their copyrighted material. YouTube also allows them to specify how sensitive they want Content ID to be. Megacorp could tick a few dialog boxes and create a relaxed policy that allowed for fair use. But they don't. They can have Content ID blindly flag anything that might possibly be a match, anywhere, ever, and then have the automated system punish people and make them fight their way out of the penalty box.

This setup lets each party blame the other. YouTube says, "Hey, I just told them about the possible infringement. They're the ones who set the policy to be so tyrannical!" Megacorp says, "Hey, I have to defend my copyright. I'm just going by what YouTube tells me! It's not my fault their system creates all these false flags, although I really appreciate it since it's basically free money for me at the expense of pissant YouTube personalities who could never take me to court."

They don't care, and the system has all kinds of incentives for them to continue to not care as hard as possible.

We find two children in front of a burning house, one with a fuel canister and the other with matches, and each of them is pointing an accusing finger at the other.

"Don't look at me, the house wouldn't have burned if it hadn't been doused in gasoline!"

"Don't look at me, the fire wouldn't have started if he hadn't lit that match!"

Of course, this is not the only part of YouTube that's a creepy Orwellian judge-bot that assumes everyone is guilty until proven innocent. I ran into a very similar thing with their AdSense program a couple of years ago. This just seems to be their default policy: Create a brutal, unreasonable automated system and then stack layers and layers of ablative bureaucracy between the user and the people running the system. This insulates YouTube from having to deal with the consequences of their malfunctioning systems, which leaves them lots of free time for building newer, even more indifferent autocratic monitoring systems.

The purpose of copyright is to protect people who create content from the actions of those who don't. It prevents me from printing and selling copies of Harry Potter without paying J.K. Rowling. The bitter twist here is that Content ID now does the opposite of this. A hard-working individual can make original content for YouTube, but if that content sets off the Content ID system then a powerful corporation - who did nothing to create this original work - can take the resulting income for themselves.

I hope you weren't reading this looking for the happy ending. The #WTFU campaign came and went, and YouTube predictably didn't even acknowledge that it happened. They don't care, and the system has all kinds of incentives for them to continue to not care as hard as possible.

(Have a question for the column? Ask me!)

Shamus Young is a programmer, critic, comic, and survivor of the dot-com bubble.

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