A few years ago the music industry was worried about Napster and the other peer-to-peer file-sharing services that allowed people to illegally post and share copyrighted music. The name Napster is now used by a legitimate service but there remain plenty of ways for people to share copyrighted music, video, software and other content.
The latest battle zone of the copyright war is not so much those shady peer-to-peer networks but social network services like MySpace and YouTube that also allow people to upload video and audio. MySpace is owned by News Corp and YouTube was recently purchased by Google to the tune of $1.65 billion. As subsidiaries of publicly traded companies with very deep pockets, these social networking services have an incentive to keep pirates at bay. At MySpace the incentive is especially strong. The service got its start as a platform for independent artists to (legally) expose their music to their fans. Also, MySpace's parent company News Corp owns Fox TV, 20th Century Fox and a string of newspapers, making it a major content provider in its own right.
MySpace encourages members to post their own video and allows members who are registered as artists to post audio files. Some members who are not necessarily musicians have been known to register as artists and post music without permission of the copyright holder. The company says it has long enforced copyright laws by removing any infringing audio or video once they have been informed about it.
The company will now take a more proactive stand against pirated music. MySpace announced on Monday that it is using technology from Gracenote to identify and block copyrighted music from being uploaded to the popular social networking site. If an infringing file is found it will be removed and if the user is a repeat offender, he or she could have their profile deleted. "Any user who attempts to upload music will be blocked," according to a spokesperson. "We have a 'two strikes and you're out' rule. Users will be warned that they are not allowed to upload content to which they do not own the rights and repeated infringement will be met with profile deletion." A user whose profile is deleted could register a new profile but will have lost any content from the deleted profile.
There are, however, legal ways for MySpace members to post copyrighted music on their profiles. The company has millions of artists who make their music available from their own band profiles and, in most cases, the artists also allow users to post the music on their own profiles. This allows fans to legally share music with people who visit their profile. It's all about control. "Whether you are the Black Eyed Peas or a garage band in Dubuque, you want to control the rights to your own music," said a MySpace spokesperson.
The technology from Gracenote "listens" to music files to compare them with a database of millions of copyrighted songs, according to Gracenote senior vice president Jim Hollingsworth. "We can listen to the music electronically; we can extract a digital signature that we call the waveform fingerprint. We can compare that to our global database of fingerprints that we've collected and manage, and if we find a corresponding identification, we can say with a very high degree of certainty what that piece of content is."
The technology works even if someone has edited the original music. "We take a segment of the song — a couple of seconds — and if we can't identify it we'll pick another segment of the song until we get enough certainly to say 'we know what this is,'" said Hollingsworth.
Hollingsworth says that every performance of every song has a unique waveform fingerprint. "Even if it's the same artist with the same equipment in the same studio there are minute differences between each and every performance that is recorded." The company maintains a database of several million recordings.
The technology, according to Hollingsworth, can also work with music that's embedded within a video. It's quite common for users of MySpace, YouTube and other services to create home-made videos that contain background music. In many cases, this music is copyrighted and used without permission.
As far as I know, neither MySpace nor YouTube is using Gracenote's technology to weed out copyrighted music from videos but it is possible, says Hollingsworth. YouTube did, however, recently signed deals with Sony BMG, Warner Music, Universal Music Group and other content providers to allow users to legally incorporate music in their videos.
Separately, YouTube also has revenue sharing content deals with CBS and NBC that will make it possible for some network TV content to be posted to the site.
Disclosure: I am co-director of BlogSafety.com, a non-profit online forum that receives some of its funding from MySpace and am co-author of "MySpace Unraveled: A Parent's Guide to Teen Social Networking."
A syndicated technology columnist for over two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
By Larry Magid