YouTube Takes Down Music Prof’s Public Domain Beethoven and Wagner Uploads

To protect copyright holders, YouTube uses an advanced piracy recognition system that flags and disables videos which are used without permission.

This system, known as Content ID, works well most of the time, but it is far from perfect.

It’s not well equipped to determine whether certain uploads are in the public domain or protected under ‘fair use.’ While mistakes are bound to happen with automated processes, it becomes problematic when there’s a clear pattern. Especially when it clearly interferes with the public interest.

This issue was highlighted once again by German music professor Dr. Ulrich Kaiser. In an article written for Wikimedia, republished by Ars Technica, he explains how one of his educational videos was flagged as copyrighted content by YouTube.

“In this video, I explained my project, while examples of the music played in the background. Less than three minutes after uploading, I received a notification that there was a ContentID claim against my video,” Kaiser writes.

The music used in the video wasn’t infringing, however. The performance of a 17th century Biber composition was first published in 1962 and therefore in the public domain, according to German law. When the professor contested the claim the video was swiftly restored, but that wasn’t the end of the matter.

Curious about the accuracy of the Content ID process, Kaiser created a test account to find out whether this was a one-off or not.

“I decided to open a different YouTube account “Labeltest” to share additional excerpts of copyright-free music. I quickly received ContentID notifications for copyright-free music by Bartok, Schubert, Puccini and Wagner.

“Again and again, YouTube told me that I was violating the copyright of these long-dead composers, despite all of my uploads existing in the public domain.”

Kaiser contested all the claims stressing that the recordings of these old composers were not copyright-infringing. The creators have been dead for years, and the recordings were all pre-1963, so in the public domain under German law.

Undeterred, YouTube’s Content ID system went after Beethoven, although that recording could stay online without ads.

“I only received more notices, this time about a recording of Beethoven’s Symphony No.5, which was accompanied by the message: ‘Copyrighted content was found in your video. The claimant allows its content to be used in your YouTube video. However, advertisements may be displayed’.”

In the end, Kaiser managed to restore much of the public domain content. However, he notes that even when the claims were released, the videos were not converted to a free license, which he intended. This makes it harder for others to share the works, which was the goal all along.

All in all, the professor concludes that upload filters such as Content ID can seriously harm the distribution of cultural and educational content.

“Filters like ContentID can be useful for platforms that host large amounts of user-generated content, but as my story exposes, they have significant flaws which can lead to the diminishment of educational and cultural resources online,” Kaiser says.

The professor cautions lawmakers to keep this in mind before they mandate broad upload filters. And with the EU’s upload filter vote just a few days away, this message will be music to the ears of Article 13 opponents.

While it’s easy to blame YouTube, the real problem, in this case, is that some publishers have apparently claimed public domain works. Perhaps YouTube may want to come up with a strike system for false claims too?

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