Universal Music May Have Inadvertently Exposed a Flaw in the YouTube Takedown Process

Robert Kyncl

Last month, before federal authorities shut down Megaupload, the popular file-storage website got into a legal brawl with Universal Music Group over a video that was removed from YouTube.

Megaupload hasn't experienced much success thus far in pressing claims that UMG misused its copyrights by removing the video, which featured many stars purportedly endorsing Megaupload. But the lawsuit did reveal something that wasn't known -- YouTube had granted UMG the powers to remove videos from the video-sharing website at will, "based on a number of contractually specified criteria."

The contract between UMG and YouTube over use of a "Content Management System" remains secret, but the ability to remove videos from YouTube could become controversial quickly. Just witness what happened to one rap group who found it impossible to put up one of its own songs on YouTube.

The rap group known as After the Smoke had created a song entitled, "One in a Million."

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The song included a dancing keyboard rhythm and a scattered beat that was catchy enough that it became the underlying music to a track, "Far From A Bitch" by another rap group artist known as Yelawolf, signed to a UMG label.

When Yelawolf's song was leaked without authorization, UMG allegedly stepped in and had the song removed.

But in the aftermath, YouTube's filtering technology, perhaps on the lookout for any reposted copies, took down "One in a Million," angering  group member Whuzi. "We were like, 'Wait a minute? What's going on?'" Whuzi told Vice Magazine. "When I looked into it deeper and tried to contact YouTube and went through the all the correct procedures, they told me the entity that owns the copyright to our song was Universal."

After the Smoke is not signed to any Universal label.

Does this expose a flaw in the whole removal-and-subsequent-filtering process? And does UMG bear any responsibility for what happened?

UMG wouldn't comment publicly on our requests for an explanation. But the company did release its claim over the video.

Meanwhile, we reported over the weekend that Megaupload had dropped UMG from its lawsuit over the "Megaupload Mega Song" video, but was continuing to fight anonymous John Does. As such, Megaupload pushed for discovery in an effort to ascertain who should be blamed for what transpired.

A hearing was held earlier this week, in which Megaupload's attorney, Ira Rothkin, told the judge that he now was only seeking the terms of the confidential agreement between UMG and YouTube. Megaupload said that the agreement would facilitate an analysis of what claims, if any, it could make from the brief removal of its video from the internet.

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'California federal judge Jacqueline Scott Corley has now denied that request, saying that it might be efficient for Megaupload, but that the troubled file-storage company hadn't articulated a persuasive reason to go on such a fishing expedition. "The problem with Plaintiff's argument...is that it applies to nearly every case," she said in her decision. 

The future of Megaupload's lawsuit is now up in the air.

If copyright owners are abusing YouTube's takedown process, it might be up to other plaintiffs to make the case. Still pending is a lawsuit brought by Stephanie Lenz against UMG for allegedly abusing the takedown process on YouTube by having her video of a toddler dancing to a Prince song removed. Also of note is an ongoing lawsuit by songwriter Matt Heart, whose "Eternal Knight" song got booted off of YouTube, iTunes, and Amazon. Heart has experienced some preliminary success in his copyright misrepresentation claims against Summit Entertainment, which based the takedown on some of its Twilight intellectual property.

As for Whuzi, he hasn't said whether the rap group is thinking about a lawsuit, but does offer that even if given a chance to sign with UMG, he wouldn't take it. "With the whole SOPA protest, people realize they have power when they see a negative thing going on and act on it," he says.

For an industry that's pursuing copyright reform, the portrayal of a copyright regime that works against young artists can't be a good thing.

E-mail: eriqgardner@yahoo.com

Twitter: @eriqgardner