Hollywood's YouTube frustration grows

Media executives thought YouTube would have copyright filtering technology months ago. They're still waiting, and increasingly peeved. Images: Now playing on a Google site near you Watchdog group eyes YouTube

Greg Sandoval
Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
6 min read
Google and its YouTube subsidiary are trying Hollywood's patience.

The search engine has made significant progress in recent weeks signing content partnership deals for YouTube. But a growing number of studio executives, irritated by no-shows at meetings and canceled test programs, say they are frustrated with Google's inability to scrub the site of copyright-infringing material.

While CEO Eric Schmidt made big news in Las Vegas two months ago when he said the company was very "close to turning on" a system that will streamline the takedown process, when that system actually will be deployed is a mystery.

Adding to the agitation, copyright-filtering technology is already in use at smaller video sites such as Guba, Dailymotion.com and Eyespot. Even Microsoft has installed the features for which Hollywood is clambering on its Soapbox site.

So why not YouTube? Increasingly, media executives are wondering whether the video-sharing giant is doing its best to come up with copyright-protection technology or playing a game of chicken in which billions in sales and perhaps the future of copyright law is at stake.

"Clearly, this is not a resource constraint. This is a function of will," charged Darcy Antonellis, senior vice president of worldwide anti-piracy operations for Warner Bros. "We are making very clear (to YouTube) what has to be done...and it has got to move along at a much faster pace."

Now playing on a Google site near you

Copyright owners are starting to show they mean business. Last week, two French sports groups joined a British soccer league in a class action lawsuit against Google. Already hanging over the search engine's head is Viacom's $1 billion copyright complaint filed in March.

Copyright infringement at YouTube and Google Video has also attracted scrutiny from the National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC), a private watchdog group that advocates for ethical conduct in the public arena and is known for exposing corruption.

NLPC Chairman Ken Boehm said that in just a couple of weeks he has found more than 125 full-length movies, TV shows and live music performances on Google Video. He strongly doubts Google when it says it can't block infringing content.

Now showing
The National Legal and Policy Center surveyed Google Video in recent weeks and found more than 120 copyrighted movies, TV shows and music videos available for viewing. Below are some of those titles.
Title Months up Viewings*
The Core 1 147,079
Enron 1 3,555
Fahrenheit 911 4 586,788
Miami Vice (French dub) 6 650
The Office, Season 2, The Fire 1 3,069
Pan's Labyrinth 1 2,125
Pirates of Silicon Valley 7 10,419
Spider-Man 7 12,114
The Wire, Season 4, Episode 9 4 26,095
United Flight 93 (French dub) 6 10,047
*Does not represent unique visitors. As of midday Tuesday, the above titles were still up.
Source: NLPC

"If a 58-year-old former prosecutor can find this stuff, Google should be able to," Boehm said. "I'm nobody's idea of a computer expert. These folks are bleeding edge in terms of information. They should be ahead of the curve. This undermines the credibility of their technology...We think there isn't good faith in their representations that they are doing all they can."

YouTube makes deals--lots of them. Major media powers, such as CBS, NBC and Warner Bros. have agreements to post promotional clips on the site.

Last week, YouTube announced a licensing agreement with Hearst-Argyle Television. YouTube agreed to pay for news weather and entertainment videos from the company's member stations.

Recently, YouTube announced a partnership with EMI Records that allows it to host videos and music from EMI artists.

YouTube said in a statement that the company expects to "continue to take the lead" in providing state-of-the-art tools that help content creators find violations of their copyright.

"Most content owners understand that we respect copyrights," Catherine Lacavera, one of Google's attorneys, said in a statement. "We work every day to help them manage their content...These lawsuits simply misunderstand the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which balances the rights of copyright holders against the need to protect Internet communications and content."

Google has said that once YouTube's new system launches, it will speed the process of notifying copyright owners of violations.

In interviews with CNET News.com, executives from five entertainment companies said they began questioning YouTube's commitment to antipiracy systems a year ago. They say YouTube backed out of a meeting last year among the Motion Picture Association of America and most of the frontrunners in online video, including Guba, Joost, Grouper and MySpace, according to two sources.

Soon after the meeting, YouTube asked the MPAA to help test a filtering system, according to two studio executives. YouTube told MPAA officials that they were close to deploying a content filter and wanted "real-time MPAA feedback." But at the last minute, YouTube canceled the test and has refused to commit to another, say the executives.

A YouTube representative did not directly address the canceled meeting or the test.

"If (Google and YouTube) truly respected copyright, they would do what every other media company has to do," said Mark Cuban, co-founder of HDNet, a high-definition TV network and vocal YouTube critic. "Find the copyright owner and make a deal."

Right now, cleaning up pirated content on YouTube is left to copyright owners. Big entertainment conglomerates, with literally thousands of shows, movies or music videos must hunt for unauthorized copies themselves.

Even some of YouTube's partners say that forcing companies to sift through videos isn't the answer. They want YouTube to deploy automated systems that prevent pirated clips from being uploaded. What angers them most is that at least a half dozen of YouTube's competitors have already begun doing this.

The most recent example came last week. Microsoft's Soapbox launched a "proactive filtering" system that it built in partnership with Audible Magic, said Rob Bennett, MSN's general manager of entertainment and video. Others in the sector who have similar systems are Grouper, MySpace, Dailymotion.com and Break.com. Audible Magic is also working with YouTube on its system.

The filtering system works by creating a digital fingerprint of a video and then storing it in a database. The system then detects the clip even if the format or length is altered, Bennett said. "It's no magic bullet," Bennett said. "If we don't have a clip in our database, we can't catch violations."

There's another caveat: the less-than-week-old filtering system at Soapbox may not work, according to an informal test of the site this week by the blog, Newteevee.com. The system failed to prevent the uploading of a copyright video multiple times, according to the blog.

But some protection is better than none at all, Bennett said, adding that digital fingerprinting is highly effective.

Still, Google insists that it's challenged by filtering systems. At the NAB conference in April, Schmidt told the crowd that one reason for the delay in deploying a system is because such technology is difficult to build.

That surprises Roman Arzhintar, the former general counsel and a vice president of strategy at Guba. He notes that Guba, a 20-employee video-sharing company, developed a filtering system a year ago.

"Saying these systems are hard to build is like saying it's hard to build cars with good gas mileage," Arzhintar said. "Sure it's hard, but there are plenty of things you can do to keep material off a site--even one as large as YouTube's."

Antonellis of Warner and Rick Cotton, executive vice president and general counsel of NBC Universal, both said that they are pleased with the progress Google and YouTube have made in developing a new filtering system, but they caution that media companies won't wait forever.

"I think the industry standard has been set," Cotton said. "In some sense the debate is over. The question is when people will decide to measure up."