Nov 22, 2013 · 4 minutes

Content ID. DMCA. These are terms that make shivers run down the spines of YouTube creators. The horror stories are legion: A commercial news outlet, who had used NASA footage in one of its videos, wielded YouTube's Content ID tool to block a video that used the same footage, even though works made by NASA or any other office of the federal government are in the public domain. (The kicker? The video they went after was uploaded by NASA itself). Remember when President Obama soothed the nation's ills by crooning a few bars of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together"? That song's publisher used the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to have the video taken down, even though it easily met the legal requirements of "fair use."

What you don't hear, are the stories where Content ID and the DMCA have been used to battle legitimate misuses of an artist's content. This is that kind of story.

Yesterday, a musician named Jeremy Lim described a nightmare ordeal on his blog: Someone stole his songs, changed the artist name and song title, and uploaded them to every music service under the sun, all while collecting ad share dollars and royalty payments. When Lim says, "steal," he doesn't mean the offender co-opted a familiar chord or melody. This isn't like Red Hot Chili Peppers writing a song with the same rhythmic tics as Tom Petty's "Mary Jane's Last Dance." Someone went to Lim's SoundCloud page, downloaded his songs, and uploaded them to YouTube, Spotify, iTunes, and Amazon under the name Joseph Ti.

As if that wasn't insulting enough, Lim discovered the plagiarism when YouTube informed him that he had violated Joseph Ti's copyright, not the other way around. The claim was filed via a company called Kontor New Media. (A Kontor representative told me via email that "Issues like this need to be solved on a case-by-case level. I think you understand that we can't give you any further details").

Lim went to work. On the Internet, there's a record of everything, which worked in his favor. He took screenshots of his YouTube video timestamps which predated "Joseph Ti's" uploads. He filed a counter-claim to YouTube, but it was a junior staff member at Kontor who helped him successfully resolve the Content ID claim and remove the offending material. If Kontor hadn't reached out (albeit after Lim's very persistent and very public attempts to make contact on social media), the dispute may have taken even longer than 19 days to resolve. Last year, an artist named Jarrod Factor received a similar takedown notice from Kontor, however his attempts to claim ad revenue on his original work have been met with one roadblock after another.

At one point in Lim's blog post, he celebrates the process, saying, "The Digital Millennium Copyright Act is amazing," which might be the first time I've ever heard an independent artist express so much joy over the controversial law. While DMCA was instrumental in getting the offending material off YouTube, it also took a great deal of persistence and patience on Lim's part. Furthermore, Lim's situation was an extreme case, the kind of limited scenario that doesn't happen often, but when it does, DMCA is a reasonably good (yet far from perfect) solution. In practice, the law tends to benefit the big and the well-connected, with the burden of proof laid on independent creators, whether they're the defenders or the initiators of a copyright claim.

Meanwhile, so much of YouTube's process is automated that bad claims sometimes make it through while good claims fall through the cracks. As much as we'd love it if Google added a more human touch to its customer service, things aren't going to get any less robotic. That's where tools like LicenseID, which I wrote about in September, can come in handy. It allows artists and corporations to upload videos to YouTube with detailed license information already attached. Does the uploader own the video? If not, are they licensed to use it and under what conditions? Is it Creative Commons? Fair use? The goal is for all these questions to be answered by a video's metadata. That way if a false DMCA or ContentID claim is made, it can be automatically screened out by information embedded in the upload.

In Lim's story, as we've seen so many times before, the Internet was both his best friend and his worst enemy. The web provided a record of his earlier uploads to prove he wrote the songs. And tracking down the offending tracks was as easy as searching on Spotify or YouTube. And while 19 days may seem like a long time for such a blatant rip-off to be resolved, think about how long it took in the pre-Internet days. And Lim told me on Twitter that he's still waiting for a resolution from many sites. But lower barriers of distribution and a lack of upfront vetting of content allows anyone to steal anyone's music on the Internet, make money off it, and then have the gall to attack the original songwriter for stealing it. Infringement is as frictionless as sharing. Meanwhile, the wronged party is subject to the automated enforcement of an imperfect law, and required to bring a surfeit of patience, persistence, and proof to the situation before the dispute is resolved. Meanwhile, it's impossible to track down all of "Joseph Ti's" copycat songs, which continue to pop up on pirate sites.

While DMCA may have succeeded here because the theft was so cut and dry, it still has a lot of work to do to parse copyright infringement that isn't quite so egregious. Even when copyright law works, it's broken.

[Image via jonkriz at Flickr]