Most people never think about the quiet war raging to keep copyrighted photos, videos and songs off the Internet. But it has emerged as one of the contentious issues dividing big tech companies like Google on one side and entertainment, music and media companies on the other.
Millions of times each week, Web companies are trying to keep pace with Disney films uploaded on YouTube, digital music that pops up repeatedly online or snippets of Wall Street research notes posted on Twitter. Just for Google’s Web search engine, the number of requests to remove links to copyrighted materials has exploded from a few hundred thousand Web addresses each week in 2011 to more than 20 million a week now, according to Google data.
No surprise, the tech titan is the biggest recipient of copyright claims among the Web firms that choose to report takedown notices to a central repository called Lumen. It currently has about four million notices with copyright complaints on 1.5 billion individual Web links.
The system for handling infringement on copyrighted material was a result of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The 1998 law requires companies to remove from the Web any material that copyright owners pledge rightfully belongs to them. Hollywood entertainment companies have teams of people who scour the Internet for copyright violations and file notice to Facebook, Google, Twitter and others.
Music industry groups such as the British Recorded Music Industry (BPI) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), as well as pornography copyright owners like Froytal, are among the parties that submit the most demands to Google to scrub Web links to pirated materials. A cottage industry of middlemen has also cropped up to handle infringement notices on behalf of copyright owners.
The data offers a glimpse — albeit an imperfect one — at a facet of the Internet most people never think about. The disclosures also substantially undercount how often material is pulled down from the Internet. Some big Web companies, notably Facebook, don’t disclose how often they remove text, photos or videos in response to notices of copyright violations.
Companies like Comcast and Verizon that provide home Internet service also have agreements with some entertainment companies to flag Internet service customers who may be using their connections to pirate music or movies. The Internet providers don’t disclose the volume of these demands, but a group representing content creators said it has sent out five million alerts about potential copyright infringement since 2013.
Battles over online piracy have been raging at least since music service Napster first cropped up in late 1990s, but the sides are far from a peace treaty or even a cease-fire. Movie and music companies have long said Google doesn’t do enough to stem piracy or remove links to websites that carry pirated movies and TV shows. Google has said the copyright infringement system is working.
Even the takedown notices themselves are weapons in the copyright skirmish. The disclosures are a way for tech companies to show how seriously they’re seeking to protect copyright owners.
Tensions periodically spill into public view, as they did when Congress proposed legislation in 2011 that sought to block foreign websites thought to promote piracy. The so-called SOPA and PIPA legislation was dropped after a public backlash spurred by a publicity blitz led by Mark Zuckerberg, Google, Wikipedia and other tech powerhouses that characterized it as government censorship.
Meanwhile, digital video and music continue to explode, though the numbers show a bit of a shift away from traditional spots for pirated material such as the “torrent” websites that give people ways to swap and watch pirated movies. BitTorrent — among the original torrent technologies –accounts for about 4 percent of Internet traffic during peak evening hours in North America, according to Sandvine, which sells technology to Internet providers. In 2011, BitTorrent accounted for about 13 percent of peak evening Web traffic.
The U.S. Copyright Office is evaluating whether the booming volume of copyright-infringement notices means the system needs a makeover. The government has asked copyright owners and others for input on how burdensome and expensive it is to root out piracy online and whether enough protections exist from “improper takedown notices.” The Copyright Office asked for comments by April 1.
— with research by Jeremy Diamond
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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