Streaming media copyright controversies

Copyright issues with streaming media have suddenly become a relevant topic due to two separate incidents happening in very close temporal proximity to one another. Because of that, I figured I'd weigh in on both of these topics in the form of a blog post, because complaining is fun and that's mostly what this blog seems to be about.

So, let us get on with it.

Stadia developer says stupid stuff, gets promptly shut down

Firstly, a creative director for a studio working under Google's Stadia, Alex Hutchinson decided to weigh in on the important topic of game streaming, specifically on livestreamers playing video games in front of an audience. His comment was apparently prompted by DMCA takedowns Twitch has been issuing to some content creators in regards to unlicensed music being played on streams.

He commented as follows:

Streamers worried about getting their content pulled because they used music they didn't pay for should be more worried by the fact that they're streaming games they didn't pay for as well. It's all gone as soon as publishers decide to enforce it.

The real truth is the streamers should be paying the developers and publishers of the games they stream. They should be buying a license like any real business and paying for the content they use.

Hutchinson, unsurprisingly, caught a lot of flak for these comments from a large number of prominent streamers and thus he got quite heavily ratio'd, and Google was quick to report that the creative director's views didn't line up with those of YouTube, Stadia or Google, for whom revenue from gaming content is naturally an important source of income. Stadia is also apparently planning on integrating streaming features directly to their platform, so Hutchinson's comments risk alienating users keen to take advantage of such features.

Now, technically he is correct in the sense that publishers might be able to argue that footage of their game could be derivative of their work, and thus be able to legally enforce their copyright over such footage. In practice it's a bit of a legal grey area, since gameplay footage is inherently transformative, since the player's input is what ultimately determines how the footage is going to turn out. So, in that regard gameplay footage could also be regarded as a performance or, according to some more radical takes, as an equivalent to an instrument.

Ultimately whether or not Hutchinson is right is of no concern, since the majority opinion gaming publishers hold is that let's plays and streamers are more of a promotional force rather than negative one. Many games either live or die based on whether they get picked up by big content creators. Popular examples are Fall Guys and Among Us, both of which aren't honestly that creative or technically impressive concepts, but they have made a lot of money thanks to mass marketing by content creators, who often end up doing this marketing work for free, and frankly in those cases streamers might very fairly argue that they should be paid instead. Many game developers and publishers explicitly allow their games to be played on streaming platforms, and in the case of big publishers this is likely to capitalize on this free marketing effect.

Another radical argument I saw was that in the case of big publishers, the actual developers don't even get paid by revenue, so technically if somebody is stealing the fruits of the developers' labour, it likely would be big suits like Alex Hutchinson himself who would likely just pocket any streamer revenue that would be gained from the schemes he proposes.

I'd also argue that people who decide to not buy a game and just watch the game being played on livestreams or in recorded let's plays were never really going to buy the game anyway. I've personally seen some of my viewers mention they will hop off when I start a playthrough of a game they intend to play and I've regularly also seen people mention they were inspired to buy a game after seeing the beginning of it.

So, all in all, Hutchinson said stupid things and reaps stupid prizes. I would also like to point out the hilarious irony of a Stadia guy warning gamers that a gaming corporation might pull their game, because that's a thing Stadia could very well do to you too.

RIAA vs youtube-dl

On another grand arena of copyright regarding streaming media, RIAA (the big DMCA bully of the US music business) issued a DMCA takedown of the youtube-dl Github repository, effectively knocking out the upstream development location for the project along with a number of forks of said project.

This means that you shouldn't download the source code from the following locations:

Or from your repositories of your Linux distribution, or any number of other forks that may or may not exist.

In the DMCA takedown notice they posted the main issues RIAA had were in regards to examples provided in the repository which showed how you could use the tool to download songs from a RIAA protected artists, and additionally they argued youtube-dl contains code that aims to circumvent copyright protection mechanisms on YouTube. Both of these are probably "valid" claims, and you probably shouldn't use examples in your FOSS projects that encourage such activity.

However, the whole thing seems pretty ridiculous. The DMCA rulings regarding circumvention of technological copyright protection mechanisms are vague and I'm pretty sure if someone really wanted to be pedantic about it, RIAA could probably DMCA strike web browsers or the entire concept of computers as copyright protection circumvention tools. I'm pretty sure you can "circumvent the copyright protection systems of YouTube" by plugging an audio recorder into the stereo output of your computer and playing entire albums from YouTube with ad block on. Not that I am encouraging you to do anything that might be illegal in whatever continent, country or neighbourhood you may or may not be living in.

I mean, the entire concept of DRM is hostile and people aiming to circumvent such mechanisms are unlikely to actually want to pay for whatever you are selling anyway, so the only ones being affected by them are those buying the products. Tools like youtube-dl can also be used to download content which is Creative Commons, which YouTube also provides, so arguing youtube-dl is purely a tool for copyright circumvention is pretty weak. People wanting to listen to mainstream music for free probably already do it via Spotify anyway, or they are sworn pirates with peg legs, hand hooks and eye patches.

Conclusions

2020 is wild, yo. Something is seemingly happening all the time and this time I guess the social distancing induced cabin fever is affecting people who are really into copyright. But I guess everyone occasionally feels like their voice and opinions are extremely important. Speaking of which, you should check out the podcast I've been doing with Liam from gamingonlinux.com. We've done two episodes now and ranted about all kinds of cool Linux gaming stuff, with more on the way in the future:

But to kind of tie all of this stuff together, I would like to recommend that you support the artists you like, be they game developers or musicians. It would also be best to do so directly and particularly by supporting the smaller artists, since those guys are unlikely to have teams of out-of-touch creative directors or the backing of big organizations like the RIAA.

Also, try to stay sane and safe out there during these wild times.