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Stream Ripping: How Google/YouTube Is Slowly Killing the Music Industry

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When the horrifying images of starvation hit America’s airwaves, Harry Belafonte’s idea to help was not initially to create a song, but rather, a concert – with proceeds to go toward fighting the famine ravaging Africa. But the surprise success of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” showed a better way. One song could raise far more money to feed the starving.

With the new strategy in tow, the meticulous planning for the studio recording started. Talent manager Ken Kragen scanned the top of the Billboard charts and began making calls. Quincy Jones’ team bought each of the confirmed artists’ albums to carefully map out their vocal ranges. The night they chose for the recording was intentionally selected…it was the only time that such a large group of stars would be in town at the same time. Forty-five in total arrived – many traveling straight from the American Music Awards to A&M Recording Studios to capture the anthem. Lionel Richie, who co-wrote the song, had just hosted the award show, racking up six trophies in the process and beating out Prince and Bruce Springsteen for the top honor of the night. So when confronted the next day about his amazing feat the night before, you’d forgive him if the award show was the event that occupied his memory. “I didn’t remember the American Music Awards. I only remember recording ‘We Are The World,’” recalled Richie. “That’s the impact it had.”

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The song was released on March 7, 1985, and HBO would air a documentary on the making of the song, hoping to convert growing concern over the famine into relief funds. “When you or I buy this record, ‘We Are The World,’ that concern becomes a concrete action,” said the narrator, Jane Fonda. A month after its debut, over 8,000 radio stations around the world played the song at precisely the same time. It became one of the top-selling singles of all time, and most importantly…it saved lives. Thirty years later, when asked how people can still support USA for Africa, the organization that distributes the song revenue to ease the pain of poverty, Executive Director Marcia Thomas replied, “The way to support us still is buying the song. When you buy the song we still get the money.”

After a short visit to YouTube-mp3.org, “We Are The World” can be downloaded for free. USA for Africa receives nothing. But Google gets its cut of the advertising.

There is a quiet crisis brewing in the creative community…the potential end of music as a viable pathway out of economic hardship. Almost any song that comes to mind can be acquired online easily, at absolutely no charge. Adele’s “Send My Love” can be downloaded using ListenToYouTube.com. Kanye West’s “Famous” can be obtained using YouTubeinMP3.com. Even classics like Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” can be had using YouTube2MP3.cc.

The list of sites that participate in this song download frenzy, stealthily chipping away at music’s foundation, is long and growing. They are called stream rippers, named after their ability to rip audio from streamed music – and they have something in common…they all mine YouTube for music. At YouTube.com, music has become a free for all…literally. And the profession of music making hangs in the balance.

***

“If an artist has sweated for two years in the studio, and before that writing the songs, ultimately it’s up to them as to what they want to do with [their music],” says John Giacobbi, CEO of Web Sheriff, an anti-piracy firm famous for helping Prince protect his music. “Sometimes they do want to give it away for free…but at the end of the day it’s their music so therefore it should be their choice.” But that choice is being ripped away.

Stream rippers aren’t new. They’ve been gradually attracting an audience since shortly after the advent of YouTube itself – but now collectively tally an estimated 800+ million visits per month. That’s almost ten billion songs a year that are acquired for free. Let that number sink in for a minute.

One of the largest of the so-called stream rippers is YouTube-mp3.org. Add a “y” to the end of its name, and you get a rather vivid, yet accurate description of what goes on at the site – a YouTube mp3 orgy. All someone has to do to own their favorite track, for nothing, is go to the YouTube page containing the music video of their desired song, copy the page’s URL, paste it into the provided field on YouTube-mp3.org, press “Convert Video”, and voilà…the video from YouTube is converted into an mp3 file ready for download. It’s almost as easy as the original Napster, and YouTube appears to be doing little to stop it.

This should alarm music makers for the simple fact that the use of stream rippers is growing by leaps and bounds. One study has shown that music piracy has been migrating from the old peer-to-peer music file-sharing models like Napster and Grokster, to stream ripping sites – a community that grew last year by 25% worldwide, and in 2014 by almost 50% in the U.S. alone. As one glance of the search term trend for “YouTube MP3” shows, it’s unquestionably rising in popularity. And its growth appears to be linked to other trends.

“The amount of streaming – paid, unpaid, YouTube – has surged enormously in the past two years,” says Paul Resnikoff, publisher of Digital Music News. “But the biggest development is that we’ve seen the amount of [paid] downloads start to absolutely plummet.” In other words, the sharp increase in stream ripping follows both a rise in music streaming (its “partner in crime”) and a steep decline in paid downloads (the activity it replaces). That might not be coincidental.

And before you say stream ripping is illegal, you may want to reconsider that claim. In countries like Germany, it’s perfectly legit. In the States, the issue is a bit murky…but YouTube may be positioning for its home country to follow Deutschland’s lead.

***

For the past few years, the conflict between the music industry and YouTube has been pulled out into public view like an ugly, adulterous divorce proceeding. Initially sparked by independent music makers, now some of music’s most recognized talents have begun to speak out publicly against the way one of the most powerful corporations in the history of the world has been treating artists and their copyrights. Chief in their complaints have been the “safe harbor” status provided YouTube in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998 – a Bill Clinton era law that shelters the company from the copyright infringement of its users. The law basically places the burden of policing infringements onto the copyright owner, by forcing them to request a removal from YouTube.com for each instance of infringing material on their site – a characteristic of the DMCA that copyright owners claim forces them to acquiesce to YouTube’s licensing terms.

When asked if USA for Africa had ever tried taking down “We Are The World” from YouTube, Marcia Thomas responded through laughter, “Constantly. Constantly. Constantly.” She thought YouTube was generally good about taking it down once asked, but it wouldn’t stay down. “It comes down, and then several months later it will reappear, in some other form, but it’ll still be on YouTube.”

For every one infringing piece removed, two more can pop up at another spot. With a never-ending onslaught of infringing material being uploaded onto the site, copyright owners critical of YouTube claim to have no choice but to sign licensing agreements with the company just to try and capture some value from the ongoing infringements.

“The DMCA has evolved into a complete loophole,” said Resnikoff.

The growing music industry consensus against YouTube reached a head in April 2016, when industry heavyweights Katy Perry, Jon Bon Jovi, Deadmau5, Billy Joel and many others began publicizing signed petitions calling for a change to the DMCA to wrestle control back from companies that hide behind the “safe harbor” provision. That same month, Debbie Harry made clear which company was doing the hiding, when she published an op-ed with the unambiguous headline: “Music matters. YouTube should pay musicians fairly.” In response to the fervor, the Head of YouTube International Music Partnerships, Christophe Muller, countered some of the more prominent complaints of the music industry in an article entitled “Setting the Record Straight.” But possibly the biggest underreported aspect of his post – with far reaching, long-term implications for music creators – was YouTube comparing itself to radio (bold added).

The next claim we hear is that we underpay compared to subscription services like Spotify. But this argument confuses two different services: music subscriptions that cost $10 a month versus ad-supported music videos. It’s like comparing what a cab driver earns from fares to what they earn showing ads in their taxi.

 So let’s try a fair comparison, one between YouTube and radio.

Hidden in plain sight are the beginnings of a possible narrative that aligns well with that of stream rippers, and should trigger red flags in the minds of the entire music industry. To understand its significance, we have to follow the narrative’s roots to an unlikely place…a bedroom in Northern Germany.

***

In 2009, a German teenager named Philip Matesanz created a “machine” that exposed a critical flaw in the marriage between the music industry and YouTube. The machine is the stream ripper YouTube-mp3.org – and it converts YouTube videos to audio mp3 files faster than most of its peers. Compared to today’s elaborate websites, its stripped down simplicity is reminiscent of the homepage of YouTube’s parent…Google. But don’t let its quaint façade fool you. Like Google, YouTube-mp3.org is a web traffic powerhouse.

Matesanz has become a bit quiet of late – repeated requests for comment went unanswered – but much can be gathered from his online profile.

He launched YouTube-mp3.org from a room in his parent’s house – bankrolling it with his monthly allowance of 50 Euros. The site did not take off at first, so Matesanz took to posting at various forums in hopes of drumming up traffic. No matter what he tried, he couldn’t get more than 100 visitors a day. It’s still unclear what led to the site’s tipping point, but by early 2010 he landed on Google’s radar. Their first interaction, according to Matesanz, took a hostile form – the termination of his Google AdSense account. This popular service helps websites monetize their web traffic by channeling in Google advertisements – with Google pocketing a portion of the generated ad revenue. When Matesanz attempted to approach a second advertising network, he claimed that Google interfered – leading to the company backing out of a signed contract.

But the real fireworks didn’t start until June 8, 2012, when YouTube penned a cease and desist letter politely asking Matesanz to stop converting its videos. “It appears from your website and other marketing materials that YouTube-mp3 is designed to allow users to download content from YouTube,” wrote Harris Cohen, Associate Product Counsel at YouTube. “We need to ask you to stop offering that functionality.” Matesanz’s failure to comply, he was warned, “may result in legal consequences for you and/or your company.” But perhaps most notably, YouTube’s letter didn’t claim that converting their videos into audio files was an act of copyright infringement.

When Matesanz asked for a meeting, he claimed YouTube responded by blocking his servers – meaning he could no longer create mp3 files from YouTube videos. His site became defunct. But Google wasn’t dealing with your average college student. Matesanz took to the web and used his massive user base to forge a campaign against Google.

Just a year earlier in 2011, the German Federal Ministry of Justice – analogous to the United States Department of Justice – stated that copying videos from YouTube for noncommercial private use was legal. The statement gave teeth to Matesanz’s campaign, and he brandished it as a sort of social weapon. He published a full-throated response to YouTube, demanding they unblock his service – underscoring the statement from the Ministry of Justice. He started an online petition on Change.org to pressure YouTube into unblocking his site – eventually garnering over 4.3 million signatures – and publicly called on Google founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, to contact him. It’s hard not to admire this young man’s chutzpah.

Matesanz published two commissioned reports performed by German copyright lawyers. They both concluded that YouTube-mp3’s service was legal and, according to German law, individuals could freely download copies of YouTube videos for personal use. More simply put, Matesanz staked out the position that his service was nothing more than a modern-day recorder, serving the same function that a cassette recorder performed on a radio broadcast.

YouTube.com is a radio, and YouTube-mp3.org is just a cassette recorder.

The notion sounds preposterous on its face given that YouTube acts as an on-demand server of music videos, and traditional radio does not. But there is a thread of legal precedence that doesn’t allow this argument to be immediately disregarded.

Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc. – known as the “Betamax case” – was a 1984 Supreme Court decision that ruled that making personal copies of complete television programs for the purpose of time shifting – or watching the program at a more convenient time – was not copyright infringement. Additionally, the Audio Home Recording Act (AHRA) of 1992 protects all copying of digital and analog musical recordings by individuals for non-commercial, personal use. There are various parameters that need to exist for these to apply, but nonetheless, positioning stream rippers as simply today’s cassette recorders had a hint of genius.

Matesanz’s argument and/or his campaign must have carried some weight because YouTube did not follow through on their warning. Instead, an association that represents music labels in Germany sued Matesanz in German courts. But in the end, the court allowed YouTube-mp3.org, astonishingly, to continue its service. The site eventually regained access to YouTube and is up and running to this day, converting YouTube videos into mp3 files (at no cost) to its estimated 340 million visitors per month – more than Spotify.com and Pandora.com combined.

Haven’t we seen this all before?

When Napster 1.0 – the short-lived but wildly popular peer-to-peer mp3 file sharing network – was ordered by a judge in 2001 to stop all copyright infringement on its network, Napster couldn’t fully comply and ultimately had to shut down that service. The structure of those infringements was as follows – a user was able to download a song from a person that shared it on a network. From the perspective of the user, the combined network that YouTube.com and YouTube-mp3.org creates serves the same function as Napster 1.0…with one minor difference. Unlike Napster, both YouTube-mp3 and YouTube’s parent, Google, have been making money off of these downloads. How, you may ask? Google is back to delivering advertisements to the visitors of YouTube-mp3.org.

This is a startling business arrangement that should raise eyebrows in both music industry and tech circles alike, largely because it looks similar to another landmark decision.

In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that Grokster – the now defunct peer-to-peer file-sharing network – could be sued for inducing copyright infringement. “One of the things that swayed the [Supreme Court] in Grokster was it made its money through advertising,” says Jon Grossman, an IP attorney and partner in law firm Blank Rome LLP. “[Grokster] knew that a large percentage of the acts that were being used for its tool were for downloading music, and it made its money on volume because it was an advertisement-based platform. So the court reasoned that they had a direct profit motive…and that alone was enough of a basis to show that [Grokster] had a hand in making money by widespread infringement.”

If YouTube-mp3.org’s stream ripping service were ever to be deemed copyright infringement in the U.S., and YouTube and/or Google were shown to have knowingly played a part in that activity for commercial gain…the results of the Grokster case could signal trouble for Google. Which leads us to the significance of YouTube comparing itself to radio, and YouTube-mp3 comparing itself to a cassette recorder. Positioning these services in this manner makes stream ripping look more like time shifting, that was ruled not copyright infringement, and less like Grokster file sharing – a service that was ruled could be held liable for copyright infringement.

Hence – YouTube.com is a radio, and YouTube-mp3.org is just a cassette recorder.

 ***

It’s not hard to see why the music industry, famous for its fiefdom infighting, is uniting for the first time in its existence.

In 2006, the music industry’s U.S. retail revenue was near $12 billion. In 2015, it was roughly $7 billion – a 40% nosedive. Yet, while revenue shrunk dramatically over the past decade, technology companies that carry their products have been growing astronomically. YouTube in particular has benefitted from this “value shift” more than most. The site boasts one billion users. One study estimates about 38 percent of U.S. traffic comes from the Vevo channel of music videos alone – not including the countless music videos on other YouTube channels. And in return for this massive traffic, YouTube has been notorious for paying the lowest royalty payments in streaming…and artists aren’t happy.

What started as a few expressing their discontent with YouTube, has now grown into an industry wide primal scream. The movement’s unquestionable leader is Irving Azoff – an American entertainment executive and the personal manager of some of music’s most recognized talent, including The Eagles, Christina Aguilera, Maroon 5, Steely Dan, and Thirty Seconds to Mars, to name a few. In an open letter to YouTube, Azoff chastised the online behemoth for hiding behind the DMCA’s “safe harbor” provision to grow its enterprise and accused the site of building its company on the back of music while paying “a pittance” to artists. “You have built a business that works really well for [YouTube] and for Google, but it doesn’t work well for artists,” wrote the iconic artist manager.

Many have joined Azoff, including five-time Grammy-winning composer Maria Schneider – who went as far as accusing YouTube of racketeering and cleverly highlighting past remarks of Google employees labeling YouTube as “a video Grokster” and “rogue enabler of content theft” populated with “80% illegal pirated content” – all statements made before Google purchased YouTube. But absent in much of this outcry against YouTube is the practice of stream ripping. It’s the elephant in the room that almost no one is discussing. And given Google and YouTube’s past encounters with one of the top stream ripper sites, you’d assume the topic would be front and center in their fight against piracy. The old adage about assuming should be appropriately inserted here.

In July 2016, Google published How Google Fights Piracy – a report outlining Google’s anti-piracy efforts and principles. Surprisingly, in the 62-page document, there is not a single mention of stream ripping. No discussion of the measures they take to block the activity, no discussion on its legality, and no mention of its existence.

One of the major mechanisms Google claims that it uses to fight piracy is cutting off copyright infringing sites from their advertising network. “Rogue sites that specialize in online piracy are commercial ventures, which means that one effective way to combat them is to cut off their money supply,” claims the report. “Google does not want to be in business with rogue sites specializing in piracy. Thanks to our ongoing efforts, Google is succeeding in detecting and ejecting these sites from AdSense.” Yet Google is “in business” with YouTube-mp3.org, even after their kerfuffle – delivering to its 340 million monthly visitors Google advertisements from BestBuy, American Express, Samsung, Nissan, and McDonald’s to name just a few. The artists get nothing from these ads or the downloaded music – but Google gets a cut of the ad revenue and the advertisers get a chance at selling their products to the site’s visitors. (In fairness, the advertisers likely don’t even know they’re on the site.)

So why does Google still allow stream ripping to occur?

Paul Resnikoff, one of the first to highlight the silence on the topic of stream ripping, thinks it doesn’t serve Google’s business model to stop it. “They want all of the material easily accessible through the platform. The fewer rules and more information the better.” He added, “They will go through any loop hole to provide the maximum amount of access.”

When IP lawyer Jon Grossman was asked why the stakeholders – Google, YouTube, the music industry associations – have not tried to stop stream rippers, Grossman guessed, “perhaps somebody doesn’t want to test whether this service is close to the [Betamax] defense of time shifting, and there might be a concern with that.” In other words, they may be worried stream ripping is legal.

However, the answer might be even simpler, yet far more troubling. Maybe YouTube can’t stop stream rippers. “It is completely ridiculous that Google doesn’t accept the fact that they technically cannot stop their users from creating a recording of a YouTube video,” said Matesanz in a 2012 interview.

Regardless of the reason, if streaming is the future of music as some in the industry predict, and stream rippers can so easily, and possibly legally, rip audio from music streams, the next logical question should be – what future is there in the selling of a song?

***

Ali G: What is the most popular thing in the world?

Donald Trump: Music.

Ali G: No. Ice Cream.

Hillary Clinton may not agree with much of what Donald Trump has to say, but she’d find it hard to side against him in this exchange. Music is one of the most popular things on the planet. It is an unparalleled vessel for creative expression that transcends culture, color, language, age, and geography – and brings us together in ways most other forms of art cannot. It’s with us when we need it, for whatever emotion we are enduring, and at times is without a question our most reliable friend.

Now imagine a world where an Internet “machine” allows you to own any song, free of charge. After a certain amount of time, year after year, free song after free song, the populace will grow to think music is free. It will learn to expect music to be free. They’ll even begin to believe that music should be free. As by far the largest music streamer, that is what YouTube has been doing to music for the better part of a decade – designing an environment, intentionally or not, that is slowly killing the incentive for one of man’s most influential creative outputs.

“The concept of [music] ownership obviously is very much at loggerheads with the anything-goes ethos of the internet,” says anti-piracy expert John Giacobbi. And if this idea of free music prevails, it will have an unintended consequence.

Aside from its enormous contribution to the US economy, the profession of music provides members of at-risk communities a real pathway out of hardship. When the promising young hip-hop talent Desiigner got shot at the age of fourteen, he pivoted towards music to turn his life around. B.B. King rode music out of the humble beginnings of a cotton plantation. Music pulled a depression-era kid named Johnny Cash out of a life of struggle. And Shania Twain, whose family often relied on aid from homeless shelters, sang in bars at the age of eight to help support her family. Countless artists have turned to music to overcome adversity. Without music as a valuable cultural treasure, able to withstand the many technological disruptions it encounters, many life-enriching artists and charitable efforts may never materialize.

“We Are The World” has survived over three decades of transitions in the music business – from vinyl and CDs, to downloads. It’s now entering the streaming era. When I caught up with Executive Director Marcia Thomas, she was in Ghana, experimenting with whether working in the field could improve USA for Africa’s efforts. In other words, they are still doing their thing – working to ease the pain of poverty.

Royalties from U.S. music streaming brings in very little revenue to USA for Africa, but it came as a surprise to learn of Japan’s role in the organization’s survival. “It’s our biggest market for physical. Because DVDs and CDs are still sold there.” She continued, “Every form that exists…in that market, it works.”

In fact, in what was once thought of as the electronics capital of the world – the CD still dominates Japan’s music sales…by design. The CD, a technology relic by U.S. standards, garners 80% of the country’s retail revenues. Marcia chalked up their sales success in Japan to its culture and respect for “We Are The World” – which may be partially true, but the music industry there also operates differently. Copyright laws are much more strict in Japan, where by law they must stringently track copyright use and downloads. Piracy has been made a criminal offense, and they’ve purposefully been slow to adopt streaming to keep CDs the dominant distribution method. Smartly, some artists only place parts of songs on the radio, and only clips of music videos on YouTube – all in an attempt to minimize copyright infringement and encourage purchasing. Japan has also had a somewhat adversarial relationship with YouTube, at times refusing to sign their licensing agreements. And the results – “90% of our revenue comes from Japan,” said Marcia. Somewhere in the remaining 10% is the birthplace of the song.

When asked whether she thought “We Are The World” could be duplicated in the present, Marcia said she couldn’t say. “We continue to downsize our activities…we do what ever we do with the money we have in hand.” Then she contemplated, “We know that there will be a point [the song] will cease to generate income but we don’t necessarily see that as meaning that it’s not still popular.” And she’s right…the song has well over 200 million views in its many forms on YouTube.

As the conversation with Marcia concluded, a confession was made…my wife and I had the song on high rotation all week. “If you guys don’t have the 20th Anniversary DVD, you should get it,” she said in parting. “It’s a great thing to watch on a Saturday night. Even though you know the story, it’s still fun.”

You can buy the DVD through USA for Africa’s website for the low price of $9.79…or you can watch it for free on YouTube.

 

Patrick Courrielche is a cultural commentator and co-founder of Inform Ventures — a marketing communications agency specializing in arts-based initiatives. He has contributed to Breitbart since 2009 and can be followed on Twitter @courrielche.


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