Facebook Live video has a problem with copyright, not porn, despite rights manager.

Facebook Live’s Big Problem Isn’t Porn. It’s Copyright.

Facebook Live’s Big Problem Isn’t Porn. It’s Copyright.

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
April 12 2016 4:43 PM

Facebook Live’s Big Problem Isn’t Porn. It’s Copyright.

170936085-facebook-ceo-mark-zuckerberg-speaks-during-a-press
Mark Zuckerberg has pushed hard for Facebook Live, but the new service still raises important concerns.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

If you believe some of what you read, Facebook’s Live video program has an intimacy problem: In Wired, for example, Julia Greenberg reports on the potential that the platform will be used for porn, writing that “the live broadcast of dick vids… and their ilk seems inevitable.” Greenberg is surely right to warn that Facebook’s community standards won’t enforce themselves.

But it’s unlikely that the site will devolve into a Chatroulette-style exhibitionist’s paradise anytime soon, partly because its controversial “real names” policy makes it hard for most to remain anonymous. Far more troublesome for Facebook will be videos like the clumsily filmed Orioles game I tuned into through Facebook’s map of current broadcasts on Monday afternoon. Whether or not the social network’s expanded investment in live video is just a trend, it promises to pose serious problems for our understanding of—and approach to—matters of intellectual property. And even as Facebook works to resolve some of these concerns, it may be creating new ones that will reshape the ways we distribute and consume media of all sorts.

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Copyright issues are hardly new for streaming media companies: Justin.tv, the live streaming pioneer that later became Twitch, ran into legal trouble soon after its conception when users began employing the service to broadcast free streams of sports events airing on cable. Thanks to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s safe harbor protections, the company was mostly exonerated. Nevertheless, these struggles helped inspire the company’s shift away from streaming more generally and toward e-sports. Focusing on a largely untapped market—rather than video as such—proved a safer bet for the startup. (Disclosure: Twitch CEO Emmett Shear is a friend, though I did not consult him for this story and have not talked with him directly about these issues.)

Sporting events have remained a real concern for streaming services in the years since: Twitter’s Periscope featured a host of pirated fight night broadcasts during the Mayweather–Pacquiao bout last year, with users pointing their phones at their televisions. The company would later claim that it received 66 complaints during the match and that it pulled 30 streams after investigating them.

But it may be difficult to enforce claims against clips like the one from the Orioles game I watched, since it was filmed by a fan in the stadium itself. In an article on the legal status of streaming services, PC World’s Zach Miners writes that courts have held that sporting events aren’t always covered under copyright protections, because they aren’t typically authored in the way that, for example, a well-rehearsed play would be. That’s presumably part of why Major League Baseball made its peace with Periscope—and why it likely will with Facebook as well. It may also tie back to the online streaming deal that the NFL recently signed with Twitter.

Ultimately, however, such issues only hint at the real intellectual property issues at play, issues only amplified by Facebook’s entry into the arena. More clearly copyrighted materials introduce a variety of problems, and the solutions aren’t always clear: HBO, for example, lashed out at Periscope last year when users employed the app to stream Game of Thrones fifth-season premiere. Where YouTube has long had systems in place to detect infringement, the equivalent technologies for streaming content are still in their infancy. It’s easy to imagine similar concerns coming up if a user were to live stream a concert, and even harder to imagine how a technical solution could prevent any resulting loss of revenue.

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As Greenberg reports, Facebook is largely counting on its own users to report objectionable content, since it doesn’t yet have plans in place to algorithmically filter out nudity and violence. Likewise, Facebook allows rights holders to make claims against infringing, in-progress streams, thereby triggering a review and take-down process, a process that it claims it resolves swiftly once alerted. Though the company proffers this as an optional form of recourse, it ultimately functions more as an obligation, compelling rights holders to protect their own products.

Where copyright is concerned, however, Facebook has also been working out more technical solutions. It’s already taken a step in this direction with its efforts to prevent “freebooting,” the act of uploading another creator’s videos without permission. To that end, Facebook has implemented image- and audio-matching systems that help flag duplicates of existing content, an option that has previously only been available for some users, according to the company.

On Tuesday, Facebook publicly debuted a rights management system that makes these tools more widely accessible. It primarily serves to help publishers decide how their videos circulate on the site, and gives them a centralized system for locating and reporting infringing videos by comparing new content against other materials in its database. Notably, it also works for streaming videos.

The company writes in its blog post:

We check every Facebook Live video stream against files in the Rights Manager reference library, and if a match surfaces, we’ll interrupt that live video. Video publishers and media companies can also provide reference streams of live content so that we can check live video on Facebook against those reference streams in real time.

By automating the process, Facebook removes some of the burden from those who’ve had their efforts appropriated. It’s possible, however, that these solutions won’t be enough to solve the real concerns that Facebook Live creates. Despite the company’s efforts, freebooting remains a problem for many, and requires considerable, unpaid effort from creators if they want to protect themselves against pirates. Live content threatens to intensify such frustrations, especially for less well-resourced creators who can’t (or don’t want to) upload their work in advance for comparison. It would be difficult, for example, for a midlevel band or stand-up comedian to monitor streams of a concert while performing.

More troublingly, Facebook’s proposed technical solutions to copyright issues may do more to benefit Facebook itself than they do independent artists. Even if the company were to create a system that could consistently and correctly spot infringing streams, it would still need an original for comparison. Accordingly, performers and creators will have to give Facebook access to their work in the first place if they want to protect it, effectively blackmailing them into partnering with the social network.

Whether or not Facebook’s live video effort takes hold, this may be its true legacy. Even if the site’s massive user base doesn’t tune in, many of those who make the media we consume will have to.

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