New MySpace copyright tech turns heads, raises brows

Site launches feature to combat unauthorized use of copyrighted video content, but can "Take Down Stay Down" stay up?

Faced with the looming threat of more legal action, MySpace announced Friday that it has begun implementing new technology to combat members' unauthorized use of copyrighted content.

Aptly titled "Take Down Stay Down," the new feature is a content protection measure based on Audible Magic technology. The company says this will ensure that video content that has been pulled from MySpace member profiles at the request of copyright holders cannot be re-posted.

"We have created this new feature to solve a problem that has long frustrated copyright holders and presented technical challenges to service providers," said Michael Angus, executive vice president and general counsel for Fox Interactive Media--the division of parent company News Corp. that includes MySpace--in a statement Friday.

Copyright owners have access to Take Down Stay Down free of charge, according to a release from MySpace. If the social-networking service receives a takedown notice regarding a copyrighted clip hosted through its MySpace Videos hosting service, MySpace's new feature will take a "digital fingerprint" of the video and add it to a copyright filter that blocks the content from being uploaded again. "(It's) the ability to have a piece of content imprinted and put in a database so we can identify it," said Vance Ikezoye, CEO of Audible Magic.

MySpace instituted its first audio filtering system last fall and began testing out Audible Magic's video filtering technology in February. NBC Universal and Fox participated in this pilot program, along with Universal Music Group, which had sued MySpace late in 2006 over the copyrighted songs and videos that were embedded in many a MySpace profile. But what's new with Take Down Stay Down, according to MySpace, is the set of tools that enables copyright holders to flag content with a few clicks so that the social-networking site can add it to a MySpace-specific layer within Audible Magic's database.

"It certainly is true that with every form of digital rights management that we've ever seen, it always gets hacked eventually, so I think it's likely that eventually this too will be hacked."
--Corynne McSherry, Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney

"Obviously, MySpace is saying we've got to be using a stronger technology that not only takes down the accused material, but also ensures that it never gets put back up again," said Randy Lipsitz, a partner with the New York-based law firm Kramer Levin. "From a copyright point of view, and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), I think that's a good thing."

MySpace isn't the only site that's been addressing ways to make it easier for copyright holders to pull their content. Google, parent company of the legally embattled YouTube, announced at its shareholders' quarterly meeting on Thursday that it would be testing out a set of tools called "Claim Your Content," which would similarly automate the takedown process.

How to deal with the online video problem, meanwhile, was a hot topic on Capitol Hill this week as Congress met with the CEOs of companies like YouTube, Slingbox and TiVo to address the problem of sharing copyrighted content--among other things.

But even though Google's and MySpace's new tools might alleviate some of the copyright issues that have become more and more rampant in recent months, some digital freedom experts are concerned that an automated system may end up being too rigid.

Corynne McSherry, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that taking the human factor out of video filtering may mean that some content may be unduly blocked.

"There's a general problem with automatic filtering technologies, and I think we know about that," McSherry explained. "The concern that I would have is, for example, it's contested as to whether or not that content is infringing at all. I'm not seeing any process here that allows for that."

Whether MySpace has put specific protocols in place for reversing takedowns is unclear. The social-networking site claimed that it would be highly unlikely that content would mistakenly wind up in the filter in the first place, and that if it did, it would be removed--but would not elaborate further.

"If you want to build in a digital fingerprint, you need to have a backstop, you need to have safeguards," McSherry said. "If there's a counter-notice with respect to a particular piece of material, this automatic digital fingerprint should be removed because it may not be applicable there. At the very least, a human should make the decision."

Will it work?

And then there's the issue of how well it will actually work, or if MySpace is just trying to save face. Cynical observers might be quick to ask how soon clever hackers will figure out a way to work around or even completely circumvent the "digital fingerprints." According to Ikezoye, it's not going to be easy because Audio Magic's patented technology is more complicated than simply generating a "hash value" for a file.

"A fingerprint is much more robust at identifying the content. Hashes identify files," he explained. If a Colbert Report clip were pulled at Viacom's request, for example, MySpace's filter would block all other forms of the file from MPEG to AVI, all various degrees of quality, and even video clips that contained only part of the content from the piece that had been taken down. "We simulate the human perception of the same content," Ikezoye said.

And to circumvent the filter, he added, a hacker would have to "screw up the content itself so it wasn't recognizable," to a degree where it wouldn't even be worth uploading in the first place.

But given hackers' long history of being able to get through just about anything, experts remain a bit skeptical.

"It seems to be that as secure as something is, there seems to be a way to get around it," attorney Lipsitz said. "It's always a challenge, which is why companies have to be vigilant in dealing with these new ways to get around locks and other provisions that are put on to prevent this type of activity."

In other words, just because it's developed an ostensible solution for its copyright woes, MySpace won't be able to rest easy. The company is going to have to stay on top of its content to keep the lawsuits away.

"It's the same thing with viruses," Lipsitz elaborated. "You come up with an antivirus to stop this virus, and the hackers and computer gurus out there create a virus that gets around that antivirus. It's an ongoing battle, like the carnival game 'Whack-a-Mole.' It's like, 'I got you,' and then another one pops up."

McSherry at the EFF agreed. "It certainly is true that with every form of digital rights management that we've ever seen, it always gets hacked eventually, so I think it's likely that eventually this too will be hacked. It's just a matter of time."

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