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Wednesday, April 21, 2021
On November 16, code-sharing and hosting service GitHub re-enabled the public access to youtube-dl repository, a software which can download videos from the internet via the command-line. This move comes after Mitchell Stoltz, a Senior Staff Attorney of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), sent a letter to GitHub on the behalf of youtube-dl’s maintainers. The repository was previously blocked on October 23, after GitHub received a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) take-down notice from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).
Started in July 2008, youtube-dl is a free/libré open source software written in Python which can download videos from various websites. Citing alleged violation of 17 U.S. Code § 1201 Circumvention of copyright protection systems, RIAA’s takedown notice had alleged youtube-dl was intended to circumvent the technological protection measures of streaming services and to redistribute music videos without authorisation. youtube-dl’s source code had a number of unit tests to check if the software works in different circumstances or not. Some of the test cases included URLs of some copyrighted songs.
In the letter to GitHub, EFF’s attorney Stoltz said “This file contains series of automated tests that verify the functionality of youtube-dl for streaming various types of video. The youtube-dl source code does not, of course, contain copies of these songs or any others […] the unit tests do not cause a permanent download or distribution of the songs they reference; they merely stream a few seconds of each song to verify the operation of youtube-dl. Streaming a small portion of a song in a non-permanent fashion to test the operation of an independently created software program is a fair use.” The letter stressed “youtube-dl does not decrypt video streams that are encrypted with commercial DRM technologies”.
The URLs to copyrighted songs were removed from the source code on November 16, and replaced with a test video that uploaded on YouTube by Philipp Hagemeister, former maintainer of youtube-dl. Philipp Hagemeister had previously spoken about the takedown with Wikinews.
Hours after the public access was restored, Sergey M, one of the maintainers of youtube-dl wrote on GitHub, “We would like to thank @github for standing up for youtube-dl and making it possible to continue development without dropping any features. We appreciate [GitHub] for taking potential legal risks in this regard. We would also like to thank [EFF] and personally [Mitch Stoltz] for invaluable legal help. We would also like to heartily thank our main website hoster Uberspace who is currently being sued in Germany for hosting our essentially business card website and who have already spent thousands of Euros in their legal defense.”
Hours after GitHub restored the public access to the repository, Stoltz tweeted “I think of youtube-dl as a successor to the videocassette recorder. The VCR empowered people to take control of their personal use of free-to-air video, but it had to be saved from the copyright cartel. The same goes for youtube-dl. GitHub did the right thing here.”
youtube-dl is used by thousands of people around the world. Multiple Creative Commons-licensed and public domain videos on Wikimedia Commons are uploaded via a tool called video2commons, which relies on youtube-dl to download media. youtube-dl also lets users download videos from LiveLeak — a video-sharing platform for citizen journalism. Videos downloaded using youtube-dl are also used for the purpose of fair use, or for evidence.
When a copyright holder chooses to release their work, be it a photograph, a video, or audio, under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license, they allow everyone to freely own, share or modify the work as long as the reusers properly attribute the author of the work. YouTube also hosts many audio and video recordings in the public domain which can be used for any purpose without any restrictions.
In the blog post announcing “youtube-dl is back”, GitHub said, “Although we did initially take the project down, we understand that just because code can be used to access copyrighted works doesn’t mean it can’t also be used to access works in non-infringing ways. We also understood that this project’s code has many legitimate purposes, including changing playback speeds for accessibility, preserving evidence in the fight for human rights, aiding journalists in fact-checking, and downloading Creative Commons-licensed or public domain videos.”
GitHub also announced any new 1201 takedown notices will be “carefully scrutinised by legal experts” to reject “unwarranted claims”, and said it will side with software developers if the claims are ambiguous. The announcement also mentioned GitHub Trust and Safety team would treat developer’s tickets as a “top priority”. GitHub also pledged donation of USD 1 million for developer defense fund “to help protect open source developers on GitHub from unwarranted DMCA Section 1201 takedown claims”.
GitHub had blocked public access to many forks of youtube-dl upon receiving the DMCA notice in October. At that time, Wikinews noted public access was not yet restored for the forked repositories listed in RIAA’s copyright notice and was still displays “Repository unavailable due to DMCA takedown”.
During the period when GitHub had disabled public access for the repository, Sergey M had been developing youtube-dl and hosting it on GitLab, another code-sharing and hosting site. However, since GitHub has restored public access of youtube-dl, Sergey M has made the GitLab repository private.
After this, Wikinews reached out to Richard Stallman, the founder of Free Software Foundation, who has been highly critical of DRM (digital rights management, the subject of the DMCA) for many years now, to discuss the harms of DRM and DMCA 1201.