Google unveils YouTube antipiracy tool

New video ID system uses image recognition to match pirated video with copyrighted clips. But it's up to copyright owners to provide YouTube with reference video.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
5 min read
This blog was updated at 4:35 p.m. October 15.

SAN BRUNO, Calif.--Google on Monday unveiled a new system for identifying pirated video on YouTube as it gets uploaded, but the system puts the burden on movie studios and other content owners to provide YouTube copies of the content first.

Content owners provide the video to YouTube and specify whether they want to block anyone else from uploading copies of it. They can also ask YouTube to allow others to post it and put ads next to it or otherwise promote it on their sites, David King, YouTube product manager, told reporters in a briefing at YouTube.

The automated YouTube video ID system looks at all video as it is uploaded and tries to match it with a database of visual abstractions of the copyrighted material that has been provided by content owners. If the system finds a match it will either block it, post it, or--depending upon the policy specified by the content owner--put ads on it, with the revenue being shared with the content owner.

If the copyright owner wants pirated copies to be blocked and the system finds a match, the pirated video may be posted, but only for a few minutes and then the system will remove it. The copies of the copyrighted content that owners provide YouTube for anti-piracy purposes will not end up posted on YouTube unless the company posts the content itself.

The technology was developed in-house and YouTube executives say it is the first image-recognition technology implemented on any large scale. Google is still using technology from Audible Magic for identifying copyrighted music posted to its sites.

YouTube executives dismissed notions that movie studios won't want to have to provide all their new productions to YouTube. They added that Time Warner, Disney and CBS--three of the nine partners who have been testing the system--are pleased with the system.

A CBS spokesman said the company was declining to comment on the YouTube test. Representatives from Time Warner and Disney did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

YouTube Chief Counsel Zahavah Levine declined to say whether the company has discussed the new technology with Viacom, which filed a $1 billion copyright lawsuit against YouTube in March.

Asked for comment, Mike Fricklas, Viacom general counsel, said: "We're delighted that Google appears to be stepping up to its responsibility and ending the practice of profiting from infringement."

However, Viacom has always said that a filtering system would not mean the end of its lawsuit because the company is owed damages for the clips that have already been pirated and posted on YouTube.

Kori Bernards, a spokeswoman for the Motion Picture Association of America, provided this comment: "While we've not yet had a chance to evaluate this specific technology we support any and all efforts to provide consumers with legitimate content and protect copyrights."

Others were not so happy after learning how the new system would work.

Bob Tur, thechopper-piloting journalist who was first to file a copyright lawsuit against YouTube, said the image-recognition technology will likely fail to identify much of the pirated material on YouTube because it is modified and of poor quality. In addition, Google should have the burden of making sure that the material being posted is owned by the poster and not push that responsibility onto copyright owners, he complained.

"What a slap in the face to copyright holders," Tur said. "Help us not infringe your material. Please give us a copy of everything you've copyrighted and we'll do the rest."

That sentiment was echoed by Lou Solomon, an attorney at Proskauer Rose, which is one of the law firms representing plaintiffs in a class-action suit filed against YouTube. "You just need the fingerprint and to go through a clearinghouse. There are a number of companies that can do video fingerprinting," he said. "They make a fingerprint. You don't need the entire copy."

YouTube executives maintained that it wasn't unreasonable to ask content owners to provide copies of their work, and said they would not use the material for any purpose other than identifying copyrighted material.

"We really need the content community to work with us," said King." I would imagine they would be able to prioritize their efforts around their more important assets," he said when asked whether it was reasonable to ask movie studios and others to send YouTube their complete archives.

YouTube executives demonstrated how the system accurately recognized as copyrighted material a homemade video shot off a TV and one on which someone had laid text before posting.

YouTube's Levin acknowledged that the more degraded the quality of video posted the less likely there will be a match on copyrighted content. King pointed out that studios are less concerned with poor quality postings than ones that are in perfect shape.

In the last week or so, YouTube's new system identified 18 videos owned by Hearst-Argyle Group as part of a test, King said. However, he did not say what the sample size was for that test.

The Computer and Communications Industry Association and Fred von Lohmann, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wondered if the YouTube system would be able to separate use of copyrighted video that is allowed under fair use exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. That would include uses of short excerpts and parody.

"The EFF has brought a number of lawsuits against content owners who have over-reached in taking things off YouTube. I would hate to see YouTube's new system contribute to the problem," von Lohmann said.

Studios have complained that Google was dragging its feet on providing some kind of filtering technology; other sites like MySpace, Break.com and Guba, among others, have been using copyright filtering technology and even human editors. Why did it take YouTube so long?

"Building a system like this is extremely complex," said King. "This is actually a project that Google had been working on for a number of years already and then when the (YouTube) acquisition went through we ramped it up as a priority. It literally has taken until now to get the technology right."

CNET News.com's Greg Sandoval contributed to this report.