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Influential musicians band together against YouTube over lax DMCA rules

Irish band U2 is one of nearly 200 bands that signed a letter to congress asking that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act be updated.
Irish band U2 is one of nearly 200 bands that signed a letter to congress asking that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act be updated.

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Do you regularly use YouTube to listen to music? Well, some very big-name artists are urging Congress to change the rules when it comes to music posted to the social video site. 

Some 200 musicians including U2, Taylor Swift, Vince Staples, and Paul McCartney signed an open letter to Congress about The Digital Millennium Copyright Act — or DMCA for short. It’s a law that was passed 18 years ago — a lifetime in internet years — that governs, in part, what happens to copyrighted material when it’s shared online.

Musicians and record labels believe that YouTube, Google’s video sharing platform, isn’t paying a fair share to artists for the music YouTube users listen to for free. With streaming royalties more important than ever what with physical sales of CDs plummeting, YouTube is seen as a threat to the music industry.  

Robert Levine writes about media and technology and is a contributor to Billboard. He joined us to explain the issue with the DMCA and how the various music sites differ.

Interview Highlights

If I'm a musician and I see a song of mine on YouTube and it's not authorized. It's been posted without my permission. What does something called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act give me in terms of my rights to go to YouTube and say, take this off of your site?

It depends. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, strictly speaking as a statute, basically says that online companies, whether that's an ISP [internet service provider] or a digital locker or a site like YouTube, they have immunity from liability from something that a user posts. If a copyright owner wants it taken down, the copyright owner has to file what's called a DMCA take-down notice. But over the years, YouTube has gotten a little better for rights holders and a lot more complicated. If you're a major label or a big rights holder, you can use what's called Content ID. They do some filtering and they give you the choice to monetize it. If you're not a major rights holder. You may not be able to use Content ID so you may have to file individual DMCA takedown notices for every incidence of your music. Not each song or each album. Each time that it's posted. 

Right now, we have major artists like Taylor Swift and U2 asking congress to essentially amend the DMCA. They say in a letter that it "threatens the continued viability of songwriters and record artists to survive." What are they asking and what are some possible solutions to make sure that everyone is fairly compensated and that YouTube can continue to be a site where you can find music?

Well, first of all, I think it's important to mention that most of the different entities in the music business rarely agree on anything. Half the time they're fighting each other so the fact that so many people agree on this gives you a sense of how important this is for the music business. The DMCA gives YouTube a huge negotiating advantage. Now that's what's at issue here. If you look at the intent of the law, it was not to give some companies an advantage over others. I think Congress would have to be incredibly careful about adjusting the law in away that gets you what you want -- more equitable negotiations -- without destroying YouTube as a place for the creativity of individuals. Should I have the rights to post pictures of my cat or a video of my friends on YouTube? Sure. Should they have the right to have all the music ever recorded for whatever price they want? Probably not. Separating those is going to be very complicated. And I have to say, although I think it's an important project, I have a hard time imagining such a deadlocked Congress making much progress on it anytime soon.

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