November 1, 2006 12:26 PM PST

Putting online video to the copyright test

As copyright issues loom, online video sites are casting about for ways to screen material for music videos and film clips.

For the past year, the popularity of social networking and video sharing online has lighted up the technology sector. The stars of each category respectively are MySpace, with more than 50 million registered users, and YouTube, which presents more than 100 million videos daily.

Now powerful entertainment conglomerates increasingly want these sites to strip themselves of copyright material. But the nail-biting truth is that while strides are being made in developing ways to weed out copyright work in audio files, little headway has been made in finding an effective way to review video.

"No one has figured it out yet," said an executive from a networking site who requested anonymity due to his negotiations with filtering companies. "But there's a busload of money waiting for whoever does."

Some companies are getting closer. MySpace took steps on Monday to eliminate unauthorized music from reaching the site. To do it, MySpace turned to a new technology from audio-recognition company Gracenote that identifies waveforms unique to every digital recording.

"No one has figured it out yet. But there's a busload of money waiting for whoever does."
--Networking site executive who requested anonymity

Gracenote scans music downloaded to MySpace and cross checks songs with those in the Emeryville, Calif., company's 10 million-song database, according to Jim Hollingsworth, Gracenote's senior vice president of sales and marketing. The system only needs a few seconds worth of music to identify the music and discern whether a song is copyrighted.

Not surprisingly, business is booming at Gracenote. Founded in 1998, Gracenote has attracted a lot of attention from executives at video-sharing and social-networking companies in recent weeks. MySpace executives took only three days to agree to the deal with Gracenote, according to Hollingsworth.

"There are literally hundreds of companies looking for solutions," he said.

When it comes to video, most companies that allow users to upload videos without any prescreening rely on technology that analyzes a digital file's binary code, or the series of 1s and 0s, for something recognizable. But this method has been criticized because all anyone needs to do to beat the system is alter the clip, such as increasing or decreasing the length of the video by just a few seconds.

Several companies, including Gracenote, are working on developing better video filters. Guba, a video-sharing site based in San Francisco, has created a method that works for video much like Gracenote works for audio, said Peter Szatmari, Guba's vice president of business development.

"Johnny" is the name of Guba's image-recognition technology, which involves creating digital signatures of copyright material. Szatmari declined to explain the details of the system but said that it uses still photos and 3D technology to scan videos and check them against the company's database of copyright work.

This means that Johnny, which has been endorsed by the Motion Picture Association of America, will recognize a clip even if the video has been coded in a different format or the length has been altered.

Nothing is completely foolproof, Szatmari acknowledges. New TV shows or movies may not be in Guba's database and that means there's nothing to check against when users try to upload the latest "Lost" episode before Guba technicians have had time to include the show in the database.

Another groundbreaker in the so-called acoustic fingerprinting area is Audible Magic, a Los Gatos, Calif., company. Audible Magic's technology also matches the digital fingerprint of a song with a database of copyright music.

Meanwhile, companies such as PhotoBucket and Revver are doing it the old-fashioned way--relying on humans to look at each frame uploaded to their sites.

Said Revver CEO Steven Starr in an interview last week: "We're going to ensure that this site doesn't cheat content creators out of one cent. Nothing goes on our site unless someone has taken a look at it."

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The service I work for, www.fargotube.com, avoids the copyright problem altogether because the copyright owners themselves are the ones uploading the material (free of charge, I should add). Then they can control the channel that has all of their content, and treat it like a combined social network, fan site and online store. They get 70 percent of the revenue that comes from subscriptions and download fees. The downside is that FargoTube doesn't have the enormous pool of videos that YouTube has, but it's all from professionals. I suppose you could think of it as a cross between Hulu Plus, MySpace Music, and iTunes, with the artists in charge.
Posted by ChrisBagley (10 comments )
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