Comments for the U.S. Copyright Office study of the "safe harbors" of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) were due February 21, and dozens of media and technology companies and organizations dutifully submitted filings. In what may be a first, however, a few dozen musicians also signed a video message that was submitted to the government on their behalf.
Unlike most such filings, which tend to consist of pages of anecdotes and arguments, the video -- titled "YouTube Can Do Better" -- couldn't be much simpler. Over a half-minute of silence, white letters against a black background spell out "Dear U.S. Copyright Office," then the names of the few dozen acts who endorsed the message, then "YouTube Can Do Better." It doesn't directly mention the Copyright Office's study of the DMCA safe harbors. The list of acts is wide-ranging, including The Black Keys, Cee Lo Green, Evanescence, John Mellencamp, Rush, T Bone Burnett, and many more.
"I'm a lawyer but I didn't want to do the same thing as everyone else, where I'm submitting pages of comments," says Kendall Minter, an entertainment lawyer who helped organize the video. (Minter represents Roy Ayers, Jermaine Dupri, and Dionne Warwick, among others.) "We're living in a social media age -- people spend more time looking at Instagram than they do reading."
That may not be true of Copyright Office employees, who tend to be specialized lawyers. But, like all submissions to the Copyright Office DMCA study, the video will be made public soon. (Billboard got a copy after it was submitted.) "It's initially aimed at the Copyright Office," Minter says, "but the secondary goal is to start a movement in the music community." Some work in this area has been done already; Irving Azoff rallied industry interest in the subject early last year.
Most of that community -- labels, publishers, and many acts -- believe that the DMCA's safe harbors create a situation that gives YouTube the leverage to license music for less than the market rate. Although YouTube uses software to identify uploaded material that infringes copyright -- which the law does not require it to do -- it doesn't catch everything. Faced with the possibility of issuing an endless stream of takedown notices, most rightsholders choose to strike deals – even if they're not as good as they'd like.
Although rightsholders would like to see the DMCA safe harbors tightened, until recently it seemed unlikely that the issue would be considered during the long-awaited copyright reform process. Even now, with a president perceived to be sympathetic to rightsholders, it's still doubtful. That's why the video's message is so general: Encouraging YouTube to raise the amount it pays for music could also influence the European Union, which is reforming its own copyright system, or simply shift the debate in a helpful direction.
"The thought was, what can we do to stand out, to educate people on a grassroots level," Minter says. The video isn't confrontational, so it won't alienate musicians who see the legal issues differently, or who have a good relationship with YouTube already. "We're not trying to burn the house down," Minter says. "We have to co-exist with the tech giants."