Music industry is suing youtube-dl hosters

The music industry is shifting up a gear and is now taking action against a German hosting provider. Three big labels are suing the provider Uberspace for hosting the website of the open source project youtube-dl. With the software, which is available on the code sharing platform Github, YouTube videos and music files can be downloaded without a web browser. According to the plaintiffs, this violates copyright law.

The dispute between the music industry, youtube-dl and its environment has been smoldering for over a year. At that time, the US lobby organization Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) managed to briefly remove the source code of youtube-dl from Github.

At the same time, Uberspace received a lawyer letter. The provider was guilty of complicity, assistant and troublemaker liability and should, among other things, refrain from hosting the website, the warning said. It was sent on behalf of the German branches of Sony Entertainment, Warner Music Group and Universal Music. The complaint submitted to the editors largely resembles the warning.

Industry wants to reach a fundamental judgment

For Uberspace boss Jonas Pasche, neither the warning nor the lawsuit was justified. His lawyer suspects that “the lawsuit is intended to achieve a kind of fundamental judgment”. If the industry gets away with this, the hosters could also impose an obligation to act if the alleged illegality of the content complained of is legally controversial.

In principle, online services such as Uberspace are protected by what is known as the provider privilege. You are not directly liable for possible violations of the law by your users. It becomes legally relevant for you if you are made aware of illegal content on your services but do nothing about it.

However, whether software like youtube-dl is illegal remains highly controversial. In response to the warning, Uberspace pointed out, for example, that the download of YouTube content is generally permissible, provided that no copy protection has to be circumvented – after all, the right to a private copy of the collecting society GEMA is compensated for through corresponding fees. Obviously the record labels did not want to follow this line of argument.

Is Weak Protection Effective?

Youtube only protects paid content with effective DRM encryption (Digital Rights Management), most of the Youtube catalog is only provided with a so-called “rolling cipher”. In order to circumvent this rudimentary protection, neither programming knowledge nor special tools are necessary. Every browser, for example, compiles the information transmitted in plain text when you access YouTube in order to play the videos.

The district court of Hamburg, which is also the location of the current lawsuit, saw it differently in the past. In a preliminary injunction in 2017, the court found that concealing the storage location of a video file, such as the “rolling cipher” technique does, was an effective technical measure. Circumventing such protective measures is therefore not permitted.

We did not receive an answer from YouTube when asked whether video downloads are allowed or not. In its terms of use, the provider prohibits downloading as long as there is no express permission. However, in its help section, the provider points out that downloads are basically possible: “By providing your original video with a Creative Commons license, you allow the entire YouTube community to reuse and edit it,” it says there. Otherwise, a good part of YouTube culture, such as “reaction videos” or any other way of dealing with third-party content, would not be legally possible.

“Even if YouTube does not praise the functionality of the video download out of the box, the videos are not provided with copy protection,” says Julia Reda from the Society for Freedom Rights (GFF). Hiding the download URL in the user interface is not comparable to a technical copy protection, the circumvention of which is prohibited by the copyright law. In its decision at the time, the Hamburg Regional Court failed to recognize that “only rudimentary technical knowledge is necessary to download a YouTube video yourself,” says the copyright expert and former EU MP.

Industry wants to cash in several times

According to Reda, the action taken against youtube-dl shows that the rights of users of works protected by copyright are always under attack by the entertainment industry. “Not only YouTube pays license fees for music, we all pay fees for the right to private copying in the form of the device fee, which is levied with every purchase of smartphones or storage media,” says Reda. “Despite this double payment, Sony, Universal and Warner Music want to prevent us from exercising our right to private copying by saving YouTube videos locally on the hard drive.”

The industry has traditionally been aggressive against potential copyright infringement. For example, in pioneering proceedings against the IT publisher Heise, she went to the Federal Court of Justice. In an article, Heise Online placed a link to the AnyDVD software, which the industry would have liked to prevent permanently. The tool could be used to bypass copy protection mechanisms of video DVDs, for example to create a private copy. The music industry’s lawsuit was only dismissed by the highest court after years of proceedings.

There are many good reasons for private copying, which is legally permitted in Germany without any doubt. Be it in this case, says Reda, because the bandwidth at home is not enough to watch videos smoothly, because you are about to take a long flight, or because you want to critically refer to third-party content in your own video. “If tools like youtube-dl are banned, all these legal and socially desirable activities are prevented,” says Reda.

If in doubt, delete it first

On YouTube, too, the industry reports masses of suspected copyright violations and demands that the content complained of be removed. The vast majority of complaints are handled by the Content ID system and the content blocked. However, as the company’s first Copyright Transparency Report recently revealed, the automated decisions made often do not stand up to manual review. This suggests that so-called “over-blocking” is a common phenomenon: When in doubt, online services delete content rather than engaging in a lengthy legal dispute.

Hosting providers could become further collateral damage if they are covered with warnings, warns Reda: “It is always easier to simply comply with a warning or takedown notice instead of insisting that the illegality of the content concerned is actually determined by the highest court will. In this respect, it is to be welcomed that Uberspace did not simply give in to the demand. ”

The hoster now wants to fight the matter and is preparing his defense. Should Uberspace lose the process, it could become costly for the company. The object value is 100,000 euros, plus legal fees, including those of the other side. That alone could make up around ten percent of the value in dispute.

Countless alternatives available

However, users don’t have to worry about downloading YouTube videos, at least not in the short term. The source code and the executable files of youtube-dl are not in Uberspace anyway, but in Github belonging to Microsoft. The vendor had restored the project’s code repository after reviewing the industry’s DMCA arrangement and found it unjustified. There are also a number of forks, i.e. split-off and also open source variants of youtube-dl, as well as countless other tools that can shovel YouTube content onto your own hard drive.

Uberspace boss Pasche finds it bizarre that a Google search for “youtube download” first shows an info box separated from the search results with a marker for the Wikipedia entry from youtube-dl. “If Youtube is so keen to prevent downloads, at least Google, as the owner, could ensure that it does not itself prominently point out what is probably the most popular download tool,” says Pasche.

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