Here’s a science-fiction script for you. In a world rampant with digital piracy, armies of copyright bots work around the clock, patrolling the Web for unauthorized images and video clips. When they find one, they terminate it with extreme prejudice, thus keeping the Web safe for capitalism. But when they zap the wrong clip and humans try to intervene, the robots go rogue, rising up against their flesh-and-blood masters in zealous defense of digital rights.
That's pretty much what happened Sunday night during a webcast of—what else?—a science-fiction awards ceremony. As io9 reports, noted English sci-fi author Neil Gaiman* was on stage at the Hugo Awards to accept an honor for a Doctor Who script when Ustream’s live feed cut out. On the computer screens of sci-fi geeks the world over, Gaiman’s face was replaced with the words, “Worldcon banned due to copyright infringement.” The culprit: an automated copyright enforcement system that pounced on the short Doctor Who clips that accompanied Gaiman’s appearance.
Sci-fi fans’ disbelief turned to outrage when the event’s organizers announced via Twitter that Ustream would not resume the broadcast. Ustream, it turned out, was powerless to override the verdict of its own bots, according to an apologetic blog post by founder and CEO Brad Hunstable. He explained that the system was set up to let copyright infringments slide only when the broadcaster notifies Ustream in advance that it has permission from the rights-holder to use the material. In this case, that didn’t happen, even though Worldcon apparently did have said rights—and even though, as i09’s Annalee Newitz points out, its use of the Doctor Who clips was almost surely legal anyway under fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law.
Who is responsible for this draconian automatic copyright-enforcement system? In his blog post, Hunstable fingered a third-party vendor called Vobile, and said he had suspended Ustream’s use of the company’s services “until we are able to recalibrate the settings.”
That sounds like good news for Ustream users, but what about other companies that use Vobile’s technology? The company hasn’t responded to requests for comment so far, but the Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy blog reported in December that its patented VideoDNA “fingerprinting” technology is “currently used by all of the major film studios and TV networks.” Another Vobile project, called vCloud9, scans users’ files on cyber-storage sites to spot copyright-infringing material before they can share it. The potential consequences include having the files removed completely from the site. No word on what happens if the humans’ try to stand in the bots’ way in those cases.
Vobile founder Yangbin Wang explained to the WSJ that his company’s mission is to preserve human creativity. “If the problem of digital piracy doesn’t get solved, the creative industry may just fade out over time because you can’t make money from the content,” he said.
*Correction, Sept. 4, 2012: This post originally referred to English author Neil Gaiman by his middle name, Richard.