Friday 3 August 2012

Piracy : YouTube Converters

Previously, I mentioned Google being under-attack from the British Phonographic Industry for not being more proactive about how it lists websites that promote music piracy.

Today (although it has been murmuring away in the background for a couple of months) it hit the news that Google has been making its own stand against piracy. As owners of YouTube, Google has issued cease-and-desist orders to certain websites that provide tools for downloading the audio from YouTube videos; therefore making it possible for someone to easily get an mp3 just by finding the video somewhere on YouTube.

There is an abundance of websites that offer this kind of service. Some of them are riddled with advertising, thus providing the owners with a decent amount of revenue depending on their visitor counts. Many such sites make it very clear that their intention is to provide a way to get hold of music for free. Other sites are a lot simpler, cleaner, and more professional, and may provide other options for file retrieval and conversion. I've used one such site several times in the past. Admittedly, this has only been for converting my own files and not to download music (the audio quality on YouTube videos tends to be lower than I prefer), but I understand how useful such a tool can be. I also understand why YouTube sees them as a problem.

Firstly, there's the obvious issue of copyright and piracy. Although backing down from the BPI's demands, Google does want to be seen as doing something to prevent this kind of 'theft'. The official YouTube channels of artists and music labels provide a location for the music to be streamed legally. They don't want you go sneaking in and taking the audio for yourself, and therefore not go out and spend money on the recording.

Secondly, and more cynically, if you grab the audio for the song you may be less likely to visit YouTube to listen to it. Therefore, Google's visiting figures could potentially drop, along with their advertising revenue.

Whether the second reason is as important to Google as the first, remains to be seen. But any attempts to maintain and support the integrity of a musician, both in terms of their ideas and their finances, should be seen as positive. However, as with the BPI's own demands earlier, is this the right way to go about it?

Legally, there's a certain amount of personal use of copyrighted material that is allowed. This is particularly the case within education. One site received one of the cease-and-desist letters from Google and did what they were asked, but expressed their sadness at having to do so, making reference to the use of the tool by teachers. Other websites approached by Google have been less submissive.

I think the biggest issue here with Google's approach is hypocrisy. Google Search is a tool that can potentially be used for finding pirated music, but isn't marketed as such and certainly doesn't suggest it is used in such a way. Should Google be held responsible for its malicious misuse by the public? No, I don't think so. Equally, tools that can potentially be used to illegally retrieve copyrighted material - should they be held responsible? Umm... maybe... I think the sites that are clearly marketing themselves for that very purpose are asking for trouble, but others with a more educational viewpoint have a better standing.

More hypocrisy lies in the fact that YouTube has a LOT of content online that does not comply with copyright regulations. It's often possible to find whole episodes of television programmes, or watch music videos, etc. that have not been posted online in an official capacity. In other words: Joe Bloggs rips his DVD and puts the videos online. There's a similar problem with people using music in their own personal videos. Google makes some attempt at preventing this, often removing music from videos if its software detects it, or taking down any videos that have copyright claims made against them. But ultimately, YouTube/Google could be accused of hosting copyrighted material and not just providing a tool to find it. It would make a lot more sense if they concentrated on trying to prevent that happening.

I fully support anti-piracy, and certainly would never wish for any material I might create or own to become freely available against my wishes. But I am not sure if this is the way for Google to approach it.

Plus, anybody with a little computing knowledge could just use some free audio software directly record the music from a YouTube video as it plays through the computer. The online services make it a little easier, sure, but I'm not sure they should be under such a direct attack.

"People haven't always been there for me, but music always has" - Taylor Swift

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