Facebook Shuts Down Pianist Because Sony Claims They Own Bach’s Copyright

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Intellectual property is a complicated subject. Issues of ownership were much more clear-cut before the widespread usage of the internet. New rules for how we use other people’s work are about to go up for a vote. If those new rules pass, we can say without exaggeration, it will shake up the net.

Let’s begin with this odd example of how convoluted things are now. A pianist recorded himself playing a composition by Bach. Bach has been dead for centuries. His songs are no longer under the domain of copyright. Yet Facebook censored the video becasue of a copyright infringement.

The issue is complicated. Sony doesn’t own the copyright. Sony does own copyright to performances of the piece by their artists, and that’s where this tripped up the copyright filters.

Rhodes owns his performance, and the music he performed was free and clear of copyright. It is possible, though, that the performance was close enough to another performance by a Sony artist, and that this is why it was flagged.

While this seems easy enough to solve with a simple dispute, the larger issue is this. On September 12, the European Union will vote on Article 13,  a new copyright directive.

“Under Article 13, anyone who allows users to communicate in public — to post audio, video, stills, code, anything that might be copyrighted — must be sent to a copyright enforcement algorithm that will compare it to all the known copyrighted works (anyone can add anything to the algorithm’s database) and censor it if it seems to be a match,” BoingBoing writes.

The new copyright system will likely build off of existing models, like Youtube’s Content ID system.

BoingBoing talked with German music professor Ulrich Kaiser who has been testing YT’s system. He uploaded “public-domain recordings of ‘Bartok, Schubert, Puccini and Wagner’,” and waited for the results.

“Shortly thereafter,” BB notes, “these public domain recordings by long-dead composers were attracting a flurry of copyright notices, each claiming that Kaiser had violated copyright and demanding that his videos be censored. He sent counternotices with mixed results — sometimes, Google’s own counternotification address just refused to accept his emails — and found his channel plastered with other peoples’ advertisements, and his open licenses switched to proprietary ones.”

The professor explains it like this:

“I only received more notices, this time about a recording of Beethoven’s Symphony No.5, which was accompanied by the message: ‘Copyrighted content was found in your video. The claimant allows its content to be used in your YouTube video. However, advertisements may be displayed.’ Once again, this was a mistaken notification. The recording was one by the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Lorin Maazel, which was released in 1961 and is therefore in the public domain. Seeking help, I emailed YouTube, but their reply, ‘[…] thank you for contacting Google Inc. Please note that due to the large number of enquiries, e-mails received at this e-mail address [email protected] cannot be read and acknowledged’ was less than reassuring.”

“I wish I could tell you that the ending to this tale was wholly happy. It is true that many of my contestations of these copyright violations were successful, and the videos were not taken down from YouTube. However, I intended to release all of my videos under a free license, so that they could be used in the future for others to educate and inform students about these beautiful works. Even in cases where my defense to the ContentID claims were successful, the videos were not reverted to this free license, making it much more difficult for others to use and share these digitized works in the way I originally had intended.”

The EU system will cover vastly more than YouTube. It will cover videos, music, photos, and also writing in the form of books and articles.

How will the web, in its world-wide capacity, respond to Europe’s new regulations if they pass?