Will SMART Act Be a Smart Fix for YouTube's Content ID?


You would be forgiven if you had never heard of Content ID – but I’ll bet your favorite YouTuber complains about it regularly (publicly or otherwise). YouTube’s automated moderation system for detecting and blocking copyright infringing-content is notorious among internet residents for its blundering content detection and favoritism to larger corporate channels. Copyrights apply to works fixed in a tangible medium of expression (e.g., videos) and give remedies to authors if others unfairly reproduce those works. As the largest content platform-- receiving hundreds of hours of uploaded content per minute--YouTube relies on an automated tool like Content ID to enforce copyright laws.

Legislation may soon shake up YouTube’s automated copyright enforcement algorithm in ways that are difficult to fully anticipate. The SMART Copyright Act, introduced six months ago, is currently stalled in the Judiciary Committee. This Act would grant the Copyright Office authority to mandate “designated technical measures” (DTMs) which would force content hosting sites to monitor their users’ content and enforce copyright infringement accordingly. Proponents tout the bill as a necessary means for curbing online infringement, noting that no “standard technical measures” (STMs) have ever passed the strict consensus requirements in the decades since passage of the Copyright Act.

Many people, including some smaller content hosts, object to the SMART Act. Opponents point to YouTube’s Content ID as the very example of what should be a model system, but is instead mired by its reckless disregard for smaller channels and communities. Just like Content ID, a new government-implemented system would face endless difficulties in tailoring content detection to multiple industries.

As if the winds of legislative change weren’t enough, YouTube recently lost its motion to dismiss a class action lawsuit in the Northern District of California. The suit alleges that YouTube facilitates copyright infringement by granting access to Content ID to larger channels while leaving smaller creators to fend off infringers themselves. Without access to Content ID, the creators allege, they have no hope of detecting infringement in the morass of daily uploads, let alone enforcing their copyrights. YouTube’s arguments for dismissal ironically asserted that the plaintiffs had not made a specific allegation of an infringing YouTube video. Whatever the future holds for YouTube’s automated copyright enforcement system, it will certainly continue to be a lightning rod for criticism.