Did YouTube Really Block Michelle Obama's DNC Speech for Copyright Infringement?

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Sept. 5 2012 2:37 PM

Did YouTube Really Block Michelle Obama's DNC Speech for Copyright Infringement?

Michelle Obama DNC speech
Following an apparent attack by wayward copyright bots, a YouTube page that had finished broadcasting Michelle Obama's DNC speech Tuesday night went dark.

Screenshot / YouTube

Emboldened by their breathtakingly successful strike on the Hugo Awards, the nation’s digital-rights-management algorithms on Tuesday night appeared to take the inevitable next step in their war against humanity, attacking the president’s own homepage. Wired’s Threat Level blog reported that a live stream of the Democratic National Convention on BarackObama.com and other sites was replaced by the following message shortly after it concluded:

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

This video contains content from WMG, SME, Associated Press (AP), UMG, Dow Jones, New York Times Digital, the Harry Fox Agency, Inc. (HFA), Warner Chappell, UMPG Publishing and EMI Music Publishing, one or more of whom have blocked it in your country on copyright grounds.
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Well, sure—you can’t just have major political parties broadcasting their national conventions willy-nilly to the public. This is America, after all, and the rights of the corporations that own the music that plays in the background at political events must be upheld. Never mind that the convention’s organizers had already duly cleared everything with the rights-holders.

According to sources at Google/YouTube and the Obama campaign, however, this wasn’t quite the stunning victory for the machines that some have made it out to be. The copyright-infringement message appeared only after the live stream had concluded, so the actual broadcast was not interrupted. And while Threat Level’s post said that the message rendered the video “unplayable,” Google’s statement suggests that the video wasn’t supposed to be immediately playable on BarackObama.com and DemConvention2012 once the speeches were over anyway:

After Tuesday's live stream ended, YouTube briefly showed an incorrect error message on the page hosting the completed live stream instead of the standard "This event is complete" message. Neither the live stream nor any of the channel's videos were affected.

That last bit is a little misleading, given that the page where DemConvention2012 showed the live stream is still displaying an error message that reads, mysteriously, "This video is private." My best guess as to what really happened: YouTube's proprietary Content ID system, which scans videos for copyrighted content on behalf of rights-holders, was correctly instructed not to block the live stream of Michelle Obama's speech. (The system, like the third-party Vobile technology that Ustream uses, has settings that allow for certain videos to be whitelisted if all the rights have been cleared in advance.) But someone forgot to tell the Content ID bots to hold their peace once the video ended, as well. Either that, or there's a bug in the YouTube code that governs what happens when a white-listed live stream concludes.

Either way, this amounts to something less than a copyright apocalypse. Michelle Obama's speech is still available on plenty of other YouTube channels, including here, here, and here. But on the heels of the Hugo Awards debacle, it's another reminder of the need for human vigilance against overzealous digital-rights-management algorithms.

In a statement chalking up the glitch to "a technical error on YouTube," an Obama campaign official added, "We do not expect tonight's coverage will be affected." Copyright bots, the gauntlet has been thrown!

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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