A couple of weeks ago, a good friend watched her laptop’s screen in horror, as a complete stranger began uploading her entire concert from the night before onto YouTube.
She hadn’t seen this unknown cameraman, filming from the middle of the audience with a shaky, low-res cell-phone camera and capturing every moment: The mistakes, the tuning breaks between songs, the fleeting moments of awkward banter, and even a new unreleased song that the band was workshopping for the first time in front of an intimate audience.
It’s easy for many people to understand how being broadcast and exposed to the entire world against your will could make you feel violated and helpless. Our ability to share and broadcast music cheaply and easily may be among the great advances of the 21st century, but without consent, sharing just doesn’t feel right. This goes double when it’s on a huge commercial website, monetized without your permission and available for the entire world too see. There are laws against this kind of thing for a reason.
Some of us are more comfortable than others with the idea of our music being shared freely and indiscriminately – the good and the bad shows alike. Fortunately, it’s our right to have our own creations shared indiscriminately should we choose that path. But it’s also our right to maintain some control over what people can, and more importantly, can’t do with our work.
Even the Grateful Dead, who have always encouraged fans to record and share their performances, draw the line somewhere. It might sound surprising at first, but to them, this new model of sharing, whether on YouTube or on a pirate website, is antithetical to everything they stand for.
Their official policy is generous and free-spirited, but also clear-cut: “No commercial gain may be sought by websites offering digital files of our music, whether through advertising, exploiting databases compiled from their traffic, or any other means.”
That would clearly preclude YouTube, as well as any pirate website that sells advertising (and most do these days.) Technology may change, but ethics don’t: “The Grateful Dead and our managing organizations have long encouraged the purely non-commercial exchange of music taped at our concerts and those of our individual members. That a new medium of distribution has arisen – digital audio files being traded over the Internet – does not change our policy in this regard.”
For almost a decade, musicians and fans alike have looked overwhelmingly to the positive side of a “free” and open musical culture. But if anyone and any company can use our music however they choose, then what rights do we lose? Do we lose the right to choose whether our music can be used in TV commercials, movie soundtracks or political campaigns? Do we lose the right to choose when and whether or not we will work for free? Do we lose the right, like the Grateful Dead, to demand that our performances never be monetized, whether directly or indirectly, through the sale of ads?
These concerns are not theoretical ones: David Byrne made headlines not long ago when he successfully sued former senatorial candidate Charlie Crist for using his hit song “Road To Nowhere” in a political ad without his consent. Tom Waits likewise successfully sued both Frito-Lay and Audi for using a Tom Waits imitator after he had refused to license his music in their commercials – at any price.
Those are just two stories of artists taking control from among countless thousands of examples. And you too can start taking control of how your work is shared and monetized, even online. It doesn’t even require the hassle and grand gestures of a lawsuit. You can do it from right in your bathrobe:
A piece of weak-tea legislation called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (or “DMCA”) is what allows sites like Google and YouTube to get away with their “Share First, Ask Questions Later” policy. But that same bill also allows musicians and other content creators to have their work removed from these websites when it is posted without their consent.
In fairness to Google, they’ve been very good about increasing the effectiveness of the tools that allow artists to flag, control, monetize or even remove unapproved content from both YouTube and Google Search. What they’ve been less good about is spreading the word. I’m amazed how many regularly exploited artists are unaware that they actually have the power to do something about it.
In the case of YouTube, you can lay claim to any videos or tracks that belong to you right now, without getting up from your chair. It only takes a few minutes.
And, if you’d like to maintain a fan-powered presence on YouTube, you don’t have to have your music taken down entirely. Using the available tools you can even decide to leave your tracks up and instead have YouTube give you analytic data about your viewers, give viewers links to places where your music can be purchased, or even monetize your tunes directly, via advertising.
Of course, if you’d like to limit the amount of your material that appears on YouTube so that you can give your fans a real incentive to buy your music if they like what they hear, then you also have the option of removing the offending tracks or videos altogether.
Not long ago, this process was a real drag. As soon as you took down an unauthorized video in one place, it would just crop up again later in another. But more recently, YouTube launched a tool called ContentID, which allows you to identify your music just once, and have it be recognized in perpetuity. From there on out, you can have YouTube automatically block, track or monetize that music, now matter who uploads it and when.
This service is not restricted to the big labels. If you’ve had issues with your music uploaded against your will in the past, you may be eligible to sign up for free. Not to be outdone, Soundcloud has also launched a content identification system of its own.
A Note About Fair Use:
Some might be concerned that these tools could be abused by blocking fair use. But in my personal experience, I have found this not to be the case. When we posted our recent “Studio as an Instrument” panel to YouTube, several American major labels started selling ads on our video, which included brief song snippets. This was done automatically by the Content ID system.
Obviously, I’m all for labels and artists getting their share, but fair use is fair use, so on principle, I contested the claims. Within a day, all the American labels had retracted their claims, basically saying: “Yeah, that’s obviously fair use.” (The only one that didn’t pull their advertising and claim was a label from Germany, where the concept of fair use does not exist.)
I had a similar experience with my own online reel as well, when SoundCloud automatically removed one song for which I had obtained the artist’s permission to include. I replied to the claim using their online dispute center, and within a day, the label had approved the use and the song was quickly restored.
This kind of protection is not only limited to YouTube videos. The DMCA also allows you to have nefarious results removed from Google Search completely. Bear in mind that this won’t shut down the website in question (so direct links will still work) but it at least ensures that users won’t be able to find the stolen work through search engines.
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