GitHub should stand up to the RIAA over youtube-dl

Earlier this week, GitHub took down the repository for the youtube-dl project. This came in response to a request from the RIAA—the recording industry’s lobbying and harassment body. youtube-dl is a tool for downloading videos. The RIAA argued that this violates the anticircumvention protections of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). While GitHub taking down the repository and its forks is true to the principle of minimizing corporate risk, it’s the wrong choice.

Microsoft—currently the world’s second-most valuable company with a market capitalization of $1.64 trillion—owns GitHub. If anyone is in a position to fight back on this, it’s Microsoft. Microsoft’s lawyers should have a one word answer to the RIAA’s request: “no”. (full disclosure: I own a small number of shares of Microsoft)

The procedural argument

The first reason to tell the RIAA where to stick it is procedural. The RIAA isn’t arguing that youtube-dl is infringing its copyrights or circumventing its protections. It is arguing that youtube-dl infringes YouTube’s protections. So even if it is, that’s YouTube’s problem, not the RIAA’s.

The factual argument

I have some sympathy for the anticircumvention argument. I’m not familiar with the specifics of how youtube-dl works, but it’s at least possible that youtube-dl circumvents YouTube’s copy protection. This would be a reasonable basis for YouTube to take action. Again, YouTube, not the RIAA.

I have less sympathy for the infringement argument. youtube-dl doesn’t induce infringement more than a web browser or screen recorder does. There are a variety of uses for youtube-dl that are not infringing. Foremost is the fact that some YouTube videos are under a license that explicitly allows sharing and remixing. Archivers use it to archive content. Some people who have time-variable Internet billing use it to download videos overnight.

So, yes, youtube-dl can be used to infringe the RIAA’s copyrights. It can also be used for non-infringing purposes. The code itself does not infringe. There’s nothing about it that gives the RIAA a justification to take it down.

youtube-dl isn’t the whole story

youtube-dl provides a focal point, but there’s more to it. Copyright law is now used to suppress instead of promote creative works. The DMCA, in particular, favors the large rightsholders over smaller developers and creators. It essentially forces sites to act on a “guilty until proven innocent” model. Companies in a position to push back have an obligation to do so. Microsoft has become a supporter of open source, now it’s time to show they mean it.

We should also consider the risks of consolidation. git is a decentralized system. GitHub has essentially centralized it. Sure, many competitors exist, but GitHub has become the default place to host open source code projects. The fact that GitHub’s code is proprietary is immaterial to this point. A FOSS service would pose the same risk if it became the centralized service.

I saw a quote on this discussion (which I can’t find now) that said “code is free, infrastructure is not.” And while projects self-hosting their code repository, issue tracker, etc may be philosophically appealing, that’s not realistic. Software-as-a-Service has lowered the barrier for starting projects, which is a good thing. But it doesn’t come without risk, which we are now seeing.

I don’t know what the right answer is for this. I know the answer won’t be easy. But both this specific case and the general issues they highlight are important for us to think about.

They don’t make TV like they used to

Last week the Internet greeted me with the news that Les Lye had died.  You may not know who Les Lye is, and I will admit that the name did not register when I first came upon it.  After reading the article, I was told that Les Lye was the sole adult on the hit Canadian show “You Can’t Do That on Television.” Way back when I was a youngster, Nickelodeon used to show episodes of “YCDTOTV” which I watched with great amusement.  I was too young to understand most of the jokes, but the slime was very appealing.

Friday night, I was just tooling around on YouTube and I found myself searching for episodes of YCDTOTV.  YouTube did not disappoint me — much.  They’re broken up into segments, and it seemed that a lot of the episodes were missing a segment or two.  It turns out that the website Blinkx has full episodes.  So I have a lot of catching up to do.

On Saturday, I decided to keep the nostalgia train rolling.  I discovered that has episodes of the animated classic GI Joe!  Angie watched an episode with me, but she mostly laughed at me as I watched several more episodes while I was making dinner.  I LOVED GI Joe when I was a kid.  I cried when Duke was stabbed with that snake and went into a coma.  It was traumatic, don’t laugh.  Anyway, I don’t think I realized when I was a kid how hokey it was.  The Cheat Commandos was an over-the-top parody, according to my recollection.  It turns out that the parody is spot on.  Half of the enjoyment in watching the old GI Joe episodes is reliving the past, half is laughing at the plain goofiness of the show.

Eventually, I’ll have watched all of the episodes of these two shows that I can.  What next?  Well, I loved watching “Salute Your Shorts”, “Hey Dude” (I can still sing the entire theme song!), “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”, “Doug” (pre-Disney), and “Rugrats”.  Of course, there are toddler classics too: “Sesame Street”, “Reading Rainbow”, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”, and “Shining Time Station.”  Man, I miss the 80s.