Android's YouTube Store lockout is textbook copyright extremism

My latest Guardian column, "Google's YouTube policy for Android users is copyright extremism," examines the theory of copyright behind Google's announcement that it would bar people who unlocked their phones from using the new YouTube video store. This is the latest example of a new kind of copyright emerging in the 21st century, "configuration-right," in which someone who makes a creative work gets a veto over how all the devices that can play or display that work must be configured. It's a novel -- and dangerous -- proposition, akin to record companies telling which furniture you were allowed to move into the same room as your stereo, and to require that you close your window when the record was playing, lest your neighbors get some tunes for free.

Which brings us back to where we started: unless you're running a very specific version of Google's software on your phone or tablet, you can't "rent" movies on YouTube. Google - the vendor - and the studios - the rights holders - are using copyright to control something much more profound than mere copying. In this version of copyright, making a movie gives you the right to specify what kind of device can play the movie back, and how that device must be configured.

This is as extreme as copyright gets, really. Book publishers have never told you which rooms you could read in, or what light bulbs you were allowed to use, or whether you could rebind the book or take it abroad with you. Broadcasters have never vetoed the design of radios.

The extension of copyright to "configuration right" is a profound shift in the history of technology and culture. There are lots of reasons to want to run a non-stock OS on your Android phone; some versions allow you to assert fine-grained privacy controls, others add features useful to people with disabilities; others make it simpler to use cheap/free voice-over-IP for long-distance calls. There are at least as many reasons to want to redecorate and reconfigure your phone, your computer or your tablet as there are reasons to rearrange your kitchen or redecorate your bedroom.

Google's YouTube policy for Android users is copyright extremism


  1. That’s a horrible analogy, a much more apt (and surprisingly less shocking one) would be museums that don’t let you bring in cameras.

    You could quite possibly not care to take photos of the art, or it could be just around your neck, but how are they supposed to tell?

    I think it’s a stupid decision, but it’s something a person who hasn’t been in a coma for the last ten years would expect. Also the whole deal about google being somehow in the wrong for this.. you can root your android device, or you can watch paid movies on youtube, the choice is entirely yours.

    1. Actually Nword, the paintings can be found all over the net so there’s no need to take pictures. And the flashlight can damage them so the reasoning behind not letting cams in a museum is different. And as pointed, I may need to root my phone to install accessibility options. Or simply to remove bloatware and personalize it. My choice is don’t use Google’s rental service and download from TPB. And thus Google and the studios lose money.

      1. +1 to the paintings. I visited Paris for the first time recently, and went to the Louvre. I’d heard what the Mona Lisa was like — a billion people kept a few feet away from a medium-sized portrait kept behind some glass (and taking photographs, for reasons far beyond my comprehension) — and just avoided it like the plague. It’s clearly going to be far, far better to look at it online (if I even had the inclination to look at it, which i really don’t) so I’d rather spend the time looking at historical artifacts, and perhaps stumbling across paintings that I don’t know about (which is most of them).

        And as for the movie stuff…well, I’m in the UK, so it’s probably not available to me anyway; but if it’s movies then surely only the principle is at stake. Nobody could possibly want to pay to view films on a 4″ screen.

        Bar me from Google books for being rooted, though, and you have a fight.

        1. The Mona Lisa is actually better in person because the effect of the moving smile is partly based upon the texturing of paint, so you literally see different shades from one direction vs. another. Every time I have seen it, there have only been 5-20 people around it, none of which was bothersome. I don’t understand taking a photo of it though.

          Although you’re right – there are countless other good things to see in the Louvre…

        2. Thanks! There was no way I was going to get around the whole place in half a day (possibly even a day) anyway, so I could try again next time. I tend to see the word “Egyptian” on the map and am drawn immediately in that direction…

    2. @Nword It’s not something totally unexpected, no, but it is the sort of thing I would expect from Apple, not Google.

      …on the other hand, I have never had the slightest intention of paying to watch anything on YouTube. If I’m going to pay to watch streamed video (and for the most part, I’m not going to) it’s not going to be YouTube.

    3. That’s a much worse analogy because it’s completely binary. That analogy would work if google decided to let some videos work and some not. That’s nothing like the situation it’s trying to explain metaphorically.

      If you wanted to stick with museums:
      Photography is allowed, but only if a museum aide is allowed to inspect your camera to make sure the options are configured a certain way. If you enable certain things in the camera’s menu, they forbid you from using it in the museum.

      Boy, that’d feel dumb and intrusive wouldn’t it? And that’s exactly why people dislike this overreach of copyright: it feels intrusive and claims to assert rights of sovereignty over other people’s physical property.

      1. Photography is allowed, but only if a museum aide is allowed to inspect your camera to make sure the options are configured a certain way. If you enable certain things in the camera’s menu, they forbid you from using it in the museum.

        Boy, that’d feel dumb and intrusive wouldn’t it?

        Er…that is exactly how museums work. You are frequently not allowed to use a flash or a tripod, which is nothing if not “making sure the options are configured a certain way.”

        Granted, the docent doesn’t physically handle your camera…but I don’t think anyone is handling your Android either, right?

        1. (Hmm…the second paragraph in my last comment should also be in italics, since it was part of the quote.)

        2. I thought I had gone to enough of an extent to make it obvious I was talking about more than a flash, but nits must be picked I guess.

      2. “Photography is allowed, but only if a museum aide is allowed to inspect your camera to make sure the options are configured a certain way.”

        I.E. No Flash Photography Allowed.

        I’ve been to music venues that allowed cameras, but not Professional SLR cameras. Some checked for video capability, but I think they’ve given that up since it’s become standard.

    4. “would be museums that don’t let you bring in cameras.”

      That’s an abuse too, as those museums use this to monopolize reproductions of PUBLIC DOMAIN works

  2. On the one hand, I kind of understand their position – if I root my Android device (which I’m planning on doing this week), it might make it easier to crack the store and download the content for free.

    But frankly, for me, rooting the phone >>> paying for some crappy hollywood movies.

    They don’t want my money.

    I don’t want their schlocky entertainment.

    No love lost.

  3. I think you’re making too big a jump here. I don’t like the sound of this move by Google, but your analogies are not accurate. Publishing companies have always held the rights to distribution (they had only one mode at their disposal, but they owned the rights). Now media companies have a new issue, multiple modes of distribution. For them to say we will publish to X device but not Y is like a publishing company saying we will publish a soft-cover but not a hard-cover… well within their traditional rights.

  4. …Just buy a Nexus S? You get all the benefits of CyanogenMod, 3-6 months before the CyanogenMod folks, plus all the benefits of being a “non-rooted phone”.

  5. Funny, I bought a Nokia N900 and it had a option out of the box to install Transmission Bittorrent client and is sold unlocked with a command console app.
    Meego was going to cause an open revolution in the mobile phone market but real this time unlike Android. Too bad that a Microsoft clone took over as CEO and killed most of the Linux projects just in time.
    Bittorrent and Angry Birds on one phone, how long before we see something like that again.

    1. Hate to break it to you, but Nokia planned for their Meego phones to have much the same setup as what Google is going for with Chromebooks. Basically there would be a switch of sorts that would “jailbreak” the phone. Yes, it would open up for community tinkering. But at the same time one would be locked out of the for pay stuff, much like what Doctorow is railing against in the article.

    2. Bittorrent and Angry Birds on one phone, how long before we see something like that again.

      Are you serious dude?

      ^and those are both free and functional on non-rooted phones.

      Also I agreee with the general contention that Google is not not being evil here, but I don’t see what the issue really is. Can’t you root Android devices while preserving factory OS boot ability? Even if you cant, when are people going to realise that a PC is and always will be inherently more free and functional? Until companies actually work to make it easier for me to consume media I will continue to get it from other sources and dump it on my phone as files (No syncing BS required on Android devices).

  6. Book publishers have never told you […] whether you could rebind the book

    For strictly personal use, maybe not, but if you intended to lend it to a friend, then yes they did: here is the T&C from Macmillan from their The Writer’s Handbook 2011 page: “All books are sold subject to the condition that they shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated without our prior consent in any form of binding or cover, other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser”.

    This is not new, or about new works – an almost exact same form of words is on my 1975 Penguin Classics paperback of Plato’s Republic. The concern was, I think, not that individuals would would eat into their hb sales but that libraries would buy cheap paperbacks and then rebind them in hardcover to make them last longer instead of buying the hardback.

    1. I don’t think I’ve ever taken a book out of the library in which the binding hadn’t been altered–particularly not a paperback!

  7. I normally agree with Cory, but this set of arguments is almost deliberately obtuse. Radio stations don’t care what radio you’re using because they give away music for free to sell the ads. It’s a totally different business model.

    In this case, Google is trying to prevent access by devices that could take the content for free. Saying that is like dictating which furniture you can have in your room is comparing apples to oranges. There is absolutely a connection between having a rooted device and being able to bypass DRM. There is no connection in the case of furniture.

    And with all of this, I feel very free not to buy what they are peddling. I don’t have a rooted phone, but I don’t want to buy their content. It’s their business, not mine. The reality is that it’s all consumer culture whining. There is more accessibility to great content than was ever available in the history of the world – just watch something else…

    1. Yes, I think you correctly state Google’s motivation. But why make the Android OS open if you’re going to shun the people who modify it?
      It would appear that the content owners have forced a closed philosophy on a company that was previously pursuing openness. I disagree with you that this is no big deal.

  8. The use of “extremism” is itself, extreme.

    By your furniture analogy it’s also not right for a software company to only release a PC application or only a Mac application. Even though the other OS might be preferable for whatever reason.

    Or, for that matter, that it’s not right for Apple to only allow its OSs on Apple products because they’re too tightly controlling how the end user configures their system.

    I’m not saying these are right or wrong; only that what Google is doing here is not as extreme as you say it is.

  9. This is more like Microsoft’s OS Monopoly + bundling web browser… i.e. (hah, pun, not intended) using control of the environment to lock your behavior into their business plan.

    It’s anti-competitive, but not with other companies, it’s anti-competitive with the user.

  10. I agree with the general sentiment of Cory’s column, but the analogy is a bit off. It’s more like TV networks choosing which brand of TV you can watch their channels on. Once it’s acceptable to do that, for any reason, where does it end? I think the real issue isn’t the immediate threat, but the ultimate threat, and that’s why the immediate threat should be fought tooth and nail.

  11. Is there a link to Google’s new policy?

    I searched around for it, both on the web and on Google News, but the only report I could find was your article, which, though it links to many other things, doesn’t link to Google’s new policy. That’s annoying.

    On another note, I think it’s a little odd to call YouTube a “Google product,” akin to calling Skype a “Microsoft product.” They didn’t create it. There should be another way to say that a company ownz something…

  12. They premise that anyone will want to rip films in such low resolution is fundamentally misguided. But someone will get around it on point of principle, there will be a way of spoofing a virgin ROM and renting their crap. It’ll probably play out like the iphone-iplayer co-evolutionary arms race.

    Are they making this lockout at the request of the big content providers or just bending over expectantly?

  13. Those of you who are questioning the analogy are, I fear, missing the point. Google (and the film companies) aren’t just telling you what program you have to use to play back their files (though that’s not something that copyright ever reached to either). They’re specifying what *other* programs you can run while playing back their files. Indeed, they’re specifying whether you should have the *capability* of running certain programs while playing back their files.

    There is no parallel for this in the history of copyright law, and no contemporary copyright statute affords anything like this to rightsholders. It is a form of private regulation, a new principle in copyright that says that rightsholders can infinitely condition your right to view copyrighted works, even to the extent of telling you what *else* you can do, before, after, or during the playback.

    1. Cory, people are missing the point because it’s a poor analogy, and it’s a poor analogy because you’re trying to represent it as something unprecedented. There are much more informative analogies such as HDCP or System requirements for software, but you presumably chose to ignore those because you couldn’t argue that this is a wholly novel evil by using good analogies which demonstrate that it isn’t.

  14. I think that most people aren’t really aware of just how locked down things are these days, because most people never have cause to play with things at a low level. Mostly right now the APIs that are presented by unrooted Android and unjailbroken iPad will do what you want; it’s only if you want to go really far outside the box that you have a problem.

    What people don’t see is that you literally *cannot buy* a working computer that is sufficiently well-documented that you can control what it does. And the reason you cannot buy one is because of all the people who want to protect their intellectual property. Historically, video card manufacturers didn’t want to release their source code, for fear their competitors will get an advantage from it.

    But now a lot of this is being determined not by manufacturers, but by regulators and copyright incumbents who are afraid of losing control of their business model. You can’t get source code to the driver for your Wifi card because you might do something illegal with the software radio inside it. Manufacturers have locked down devices in increasingly inventive ways so that you can’t even study the device and learn how it works, and then change it.

    What is interesting about this new Google/Youtube move is not that it’s new or different, but that it’s such a stark illustration of the conflict. Things people actually want to do with their phones and tablets, they will not be able to do, if they want to rent movies from Youtube.

    I *hope* that the eventual outcome of this is that people don’t use this new Youtube movie rental service. The conflict between one set of usability enhancements and another is sufficient to actually make people aware of it. But I’m afraid that people will choose to knuckle under.

  15. I’m sure Netflicks and other video content providers welcome Google crippling their own service. Make sure Android devices are preloaded with Netflicks and if the Youtube service fails for you the path of least resistance is your service.

    I also have an honest question. What portion of the market root their phones? Is it a sizable enough portion of their market to even care about them from a financial standpoint?

  16. A more apt comparison would be a TV station requiring you to allow their agents to search and/or ransack your home at any time they want to, in order to be allowed to watch, and assuming an opt-in if that channel was at all available in your cable package.

  17. This is even worse in the long term.

    Imagine the near term future where we have cybernetic augmentations.

    Can you afford to give g0ogle and the copyright enforcers root on your cell phone much less in the future where we will depend on these devices even more than we already do.

    Perhaps it is not unreasonable to imagine a future where the copyright extremists can delete your memories if you if try to run unauthorized software on your augmentations.

  18. Well, Cory, I’m afraid this sounds like “If you disagree with me, you just don’t _understand_!” Not sure that’s a valid argument…

  19. I had a similar reaction to most people, this hardly seems mind-blowing, but does seem to fall in line with the Guardian’s editorial promotions of extreme warnings and analysis.

    Wouldn’t a better analogy (especially after the ‘clarification’ of comment 14) be one of a movie theater (or media company) prohibiting you from operating a video camera in a theater while a movie played? (which, of course, may or may not be capturing the content on the screen)

  20. I don’t think you even need an analogy. It’s a troubling development, just report it as such. I find it very weird that in a country where people get so rabid about their rights as property owners that people aren’t more upset about this trend. In a Facebook thread I’m following there’s a huge debate about whether a guy should have the right to build crazy wingnut modifications on his own house out in the boonies without getting permits. Most people on the thread think he should, and if his house falls on him, well that’s the price you pay for genius. So why aren’t more people sticking up for personal property rights in the digital realm?

  21. NO ONE is going to use a smartphone to pirate streaming movies.

    Anyone with the mind to root a phone and intercept the stream would take the path of least resistance and download the DVDrip off usenet.

    I really don’t get this objection from content providers; they let us stream to PCs when logged-in as administrator.

  22. Cory,

    “…bar people who unlocked their phones…”

    I think you may not understand the difference between Unlocking and Rooting.

    Unlocking a phone allows you to use your phone on a different carrier than the one you bought it from. There is no baning policy from Google for YouTube users on Unlocked Phones.

    Rooting a Phone and installing a third-party kernel, is the actual issue here. Since it is a third-party kernel, there are no assurances (to date) that DRM is properly managed on the phone – hence the issue with YouTube.

    You might want to re-read the original article and re-word your posting.

  23. Probable timeline:

    May 31, 2011 – Google and rightsholders bar unlocked Android devices from accessing legal movies online.

    Jan 1, 2012 – Report by rightsholders shows that movie piracy on unlocked Android devices is nearly 100%.

    Sept 1, 2012 – Rightsholders try to force through legislation that would force Google to police Android devices for pirated content.

    Jan 1, 2013 – Google sued in every country except for the USA for violating the privacy of device owners by remotely accessing their deivces to determine what type of data they have stored there.

    Jan 1, 2014 – Android sales tank as Google is badmouthed in every corner of the internet; fines from multiple governments make Android division unprofitable; Google announces closing of Android division and online video store.

    July 1, 2020 – A scholarly paper notes that the heavy handed tactics in the emerging cell phone market was one of the reasons for the fall of the movie industry, makes a comparison to Napster.


  24. So if I root my phone, I’ll just have to watch the pirated movie for free instead of giving Google (more of) my money. Well, if that’s the way they want to play it…

  25. Can I request again to see this new policy? I wish it were linked to in the original article…

    A Google search for this only finds endless echos of this same article. But this article has no source.

    I’m not doubting that Google did make such an announcement, but I bet it would help the discussion if we could see the actual wording.

    1. SamSam, it’s not something that was announced, but just something that Google started enforcing. However, there is mention of it on Android Market support documentation:

      Also I doubt it’s something that Google/YouTube would do on their own but were required to do to get access to the content they are getting.

      Some have mentioned that this means more money for NetFlix, but they block rooted Android devices as does the Blockbuster app that streams movies.

      Movie rental service for Android devices is something that many tech blogs have been talking about Google wanting to do for quite some time. I imagine this requirement of blocking rooted devices was one of the main things that delayed Google from rolling out this service for such a long time.

      Just as many blogs have pointed out how on the desktop they are showing movies in the browser with the Flash Player. I have no doubt, Google would rather use the new HTML5 video tag to play this content, but the lack of DRM in HTML5 video, means studios force them to use Flash.

      1. Ah. Hmmm… I was taking Cory’s statement at face-value:

        Google’s announcement that it would bar people who unlocked their phones from using the new YouTube video store.

        So they didn’t actually announce anything? Has this actually affected many people? That is, do we have evidence that we should take that very vague statement at face value — it’s impossible to rent movies on a rooted phone? Or are they just saying that rooted phones “aren’t supported,” as they say at the end there?

  26. “making a movie gives you the right to specify”
    Google doesnt make the movie. It merely provides access to it.
    Movie theaters might require you to wear a short skirt to watch in their building.

  27. Won’t this scenario play out like this:

    “Here, I have money, can I rent your movie?

    No? You don’t want my money?

    Okay, that’s fine, I’ll pirate it instead.”

    1. Won’t this scenario play out like this:

      “Here, I have money, can I rent your movie?

      No? You don’t want my money?

      Okay, that’s fine, I’ll pirate it instead.”

      Certainly not.

      Of course they’ll take your money.

      You just won’t be able to play the movie.

  28. Sorry Cory, but this seems completely overblown.

    This is absolutely nothing new. If I want to watch a DVD I need hardware that has been approved by those who hand out the decryption keys. If I want to watch a blu-ray, it’s the same. If I hack the s/w or hardware I have to be clever about it or it ceases to have that particular function. Just ask all the people who were banned from Xbox Live for having hacked consoles – a far more worrying precedent as what happened there was the removal of a pre-existing (and important) service from owners, rather than the inability to gain access to a (relatively unimportant, given that anyone with an Android phone can now use Netflix) new service.

    Now, unlike the Xbox issue, there is a way to back out of rooting your device. And, unlike the Xbox issue, you can find alternative services to get access to those films. Stream from Netflix, buy the DVD and convert it, go watch it in the cinema. The copyright holders aren’t forcing you to use *this* channel. There are many others.

  29. A crafty lawyer could probably craft a complaint and seek an injunction and damages from YOUTUBE based on an antitrust violation for the reasons expressed. YOUTUBE must treat all of its customers equally without discrimination or bias towards or against smart phone users who decide to unlock their phone for reasons not related to YOUTUBE.

  30. “This novel theory of copyright is the antithesis of the “openness” that Google advertises as the unique selling proposition for Android. What’s more, it has a predictable trajectory: users will discover that an ever-expanding list of requirements must be met in order to continue to “rent” copyrighted works on their Android devices. Third-party apps that defeat the anti-copying measures will be banned, and apps whose characteristics can’t be verified will be locked out just to be safe.”

    This is the central point. I think the argument weak, and unsure why there is any surprise to it. Of course, Google’s Market is going to eventually have to respect copyright, police porn, etc. Many understood the pros and CONS of “openness” from the start. I’m disappointed you took the extreme route, Cory (a “predictable trajectory”?); you also fail to grasp the nuances. Jailbreaking and rooting are legal rights in the US (I presume much of the world or otherwise simply ignored). What you see as the ballistics of copyright extremism, I see as consumers choosing to buy something or not. No one is denying your right to jailbreak and use applications of your own choice and making; you also have the option to be foreclosed in participating in some commercial markets. You don’t have “the right” to say they can’t do business in a way which you CHOOSE to not participate in.

    You missed an excellent opportunity to explore the subtleties of “openness”, the many compromises that must be made. Even iOS users have decent rights and a thriving community of non-App Store software requiring jailbreaking and rooting to enable all sorts of copyright disregard. People always fail to recognize the vibrance of the iOS jailbreak community.

    I wish you could understand that if Google wants to sell the entire world’s content to the entire population of the world, they are going to be forced to respect the copyright holders’s wishes across their platforms and services. You seem unable to grasp this: sure, you have some rights, and, sure, you can make your own rules for your own works… but more often than not, people want to be paid and other people are willing to pay them if convenient and worthwhile. Many of us who accept capitalism find this obvious and the whole nut of whether Android is going to be much of a success for the many contributors to it as a platform.

    There is still an umbrella under which you can disregard or display your own copyright “openness” all you want. It is a right on all mobile system platforms. But that doesn’t entitle you to the privileges, conveniences, bounty, utility and feature set of “closed” or proprietary platforms. That is Your Choice.

  31. Like all DRM, it’s both dumb and ineffective. Locking down legal options only makes them less attractive and steers people toward illegal options, which already have the benefit of being free. The only way paid content will ever beat pirated content is for the paid version to be better, not worse.

    Google can shoot it’s youtube rental store in the foot if it wants. Pirated options will always be available for those who don’t want to jump through hoops just for the privilege of paying for something they could easier get for free.

  32. I sympathize with Cory’s disappointment and anger, and appreciate his bringing this to our attention, but his analysis is at best completely unsound, at worst a willful distortion.

    Forget the unhelpful, unnecessary analogies and the wild, ungrounded assertions. This isn’t about copyright at all. This is a *circumvention* of copyright. ‘Do no evil’ is simply specifying and intending to enforce a set of conditions which you need to fulfill in order to use their service.

    By all means shun, oppose, condemn, break, spoof. But ‘examin[ing] the theory of copyright’ is barking up the wrong damn tree.

  33. I rather like Cory’s analogy because as a Second Life resident I can relate it to a copybot room that you put a couch in, press a button, and the room defeats the DRM on the couch and you get a copy of it.

    Google is only doing this because they don’t want to become an overt vector for MPAA product copyright infringement. Given that any movie they are currently renting is easier to obtain through other means I think they’re being paranoid, and trying way too hard to curry MPAA favor.

  34. Cory, I’m normally with you on the copyright wars issues. But in this particular case Google is justified (though not very smart) in limiting the scope of device configs that can DL their proprietary content. No one puts a gun to your head and says you have to buy Lady Gaga videos from YouTube. I know they won’t be getting my money. I’d rather have a rooted phone. Now if they try suing users for rooting their phones regardless, then that’s a fair use problem. But if Google wants to torpedo their market share by following a restrictive licensing policy, plenty of competitors will gladly accommodate their customers. Free market means also being free to immolate through Dilbert-esque stupidity.

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