Taylor Swift, Sir Paul McCartney and U2 are among those set to join the music industry's increasingly loud battle with the world’s largest music service: YouTube. The musicians hope to plead the case in a series of ads this week that it is time to reform a 17-year-old law known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that they believe puts tech giants before musicians.
Enacted way back in 1998, the DMCA offers certain protections -- sometimes called "safe harbor" -- for websites hosting copyrighted content. Under the law, websites like YouTube can serve copyrighted music uploaded by ordinary users so long as the site takes it down when the rights holder asks. In an open letter to be published Tuesday in D.C.-based publications The Hill, Politico and Roll Call, dozens of artists and major record labels call for reforming the DMCA, according to multiple reports.
Many major record labels are currently involved in contract renegotiations with YouTube, or will be shortly, meaning the letter will make its debut at a key time. Those same labels believe that the DMCA gives big tech companies like YouTube a leg up in negotiating fees -- meaning less revenue is making its way back to music creators. And that doesn't make artists very happy, either. Music industry executives call that difference between actual profit from user-generated content sites and estimated potential profit a "value gap." And they're out to close it.
The letter, which will run as an ad, according to Billboard, states that the DMCA “has allowed major tech companies to grow and generate huge profits by creating ease of use for consumers to carry almost every recorded song in history in their pocket via a smartphone, while songwriters’ and artists’ earnings continue to diminish.”
YouTube -- which says it has paid out a whopping $3 billion to the music industry so far -- disagrees with the idea that it is hiding behind the DMCA, pointing to its Content ID system as proof the company aggressive finds and deletes unlawful content on the site. Content ID automatically scans content in an attempt to catch copyrighted material early on to save labels from even having to issue a formal takedown notice. Through the system, labels can choose to remove videos containing their copyrighted material or monetize it via the site. According to the company, the vast majority of material taken down for DMCA violations -- 98 percent -- is taken down using Content ID.
Besides, says YouTube, most people playing music on YouTube are casual listeners who might not add to artists' revenue otherwise. At least they're getting something.
"Any claim that the DMCA safe harbors are responsible for a 'value gap' for music on YouTube is simply false," reads a statement provided by Google, the parent company of YouTube.
But other companies are worried about YouTube, too. When music fans can listen to pretty much any song for free on that site, why pay for a subscription model -- like Spotify or Apple Music -- which typically offer artists and labels bigger checks?
Whether lawmakers will listen to Swift, et al. and tweak the Copyright Act is yet to be determined. The battle between music creators and distributors is likely far from over, but we might be able to expect some changes out of YouTube after all.
“The voices of the artists are being heard," reads a statement provided by the company to Music Business Worldwide.
After this week, the voices of artists and labels might be even harder to ignore.