YouTube's real pirates: multinational companies that claim ownership over public domain videos

My latest Guardian column, "The pirates of YouTube," documents how multinational copyright-holding companies have laid false claim to public domain videos on YouTube — videos posted by the nonprofit FedFlix organization, which liberates public domain government-produced videos and makes them available to the world. These videos were produced at public expense and no one can claim to own them, but multinationals from CBS to Discovery Communications have done just that, getting YouTube to place ads on the video that deliver income to their coffers. What's more, their false copyright claims could lead to the suspension of FedFlix's YouTube account under Google's rules for its copyright policing system. This system, ContentID, sets out penalties for "repeat offenders" who generate too many copyright claims — but offers no corresponding penalties for rightsholders who make too many false claims of ownership.

Malamud's 146-page report from FedFlix to the Archivist of the United States documents claims that companies such as NBC Universal, al-Jazeera, and Discovery Communications have used ContentID to claim title to FedFlix videos on YouTube. Some music royalty collecting societies have claimed infringements in "silent movies".

These companies' claims – there are hundreds of them – have the potential to generate black marks on FedFlix's YouTube account, and these black marks could lead to automated punishment from YouTube. Accounts that generate claims can be suspended or deleted, or lose the right to mark videos as being available as Creative Commons or public domain files.

YouTube offers very little help for FedFlix. ContentID's dispute resolution mechanism allows FedFlix to contest these claims under only three circumstances: first, ContentID has generated a false match (that is, the video isn't what ContentID thinks it is); second, the uploader has the right to the file, as demonstrated by written permission from its proprietor; or third, the use is acceptable under the US doctrine of fair use, or its counterpart in other laws, fair dealing.

The pirates of YouTube