Friday, February 23, 2007

Google to start filtering YouTube videos

Mercury News

Google is set to start filtering videos and other content on YouTube for copyrighted materials, taking a key step in helping the online video-sharing site comply with one of the biggest complaints it faces -- rampant piracy.

The Mercury News has learned that Google will use technology from Los Gatos-based Audible Magic. That company's software was mentioned in the U.S. Supreme Court's Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios vs. Grokster ruling as evidence that file-sharing services could keep pirated files off their networks.

Yet Google's move may simply drive YouTube's audience to other sites, where copyright violations are even more egregious. While YouTube imposes a 10-minute limit on uploaded clips, sites like in France or in Denmark screen full-length movies and pirated TV episodes.

YouTube is ``definitely going to lose popularity,'' said Jesse Drew, acting director of the technocultural studies program at University of California-Davis. ``These things become popular because they are underground and free and accessible.''

YouTube had agreed in September to begin filtering videos, but implementation of a filtering system was delayed while Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt tried to hammer out licensing deals with major studios.

Some copyright holders complained that Google appeared to be using the filtering technology as leverage in negotiations. Earlier this month, Viacom demanded that YouTube remove more than 100,000 videos, including clips of shows like ``SpongeBob Squarepants,'' posted on its site. NBC Universal and News Corp. also have requested that YouTube take down clips.

Last week, for instance, Richard Cotton, general counsel of NBC Universal, wrote Google a five-page letter demanding that Google use all available means to address copyright infringement on YouTube.

Users of Audible Magic's technology have included iMesh, a peer-to-peer music-sharing site, the PlayLouder MSP music service, and Grouper, a video-sharing site owned by Sony. MySpace recently announced a pilot program to use Audible Magic to prevent unauthorized videos from being posted by its users.

Neither YouTube nor Audible Magic would comment on the deal, which has not been publicly announced. The Mercury News spoke with two sources familiar with the deal who were not cleared to comment officially about it.

In an interview with Reuters on Wednesday, Google's Schmidt said filtering technology was one of the company's ``highest priorities.''

``It is going to roll out very soon,'' Schmidt said.

In an interview with the Mercury News last week, Vance Ikezoye, chief executive of Audible Magic, said it takes ``a few days at most'' for a site to begin filtering.

The system works by comparing the audio fingerprint of a video to a large database of copyrighted material. Founded in 1999, Audible Magic originally was focused on the problem of monitoring radio broadcasts. It purchased the technology for audio fingerprinting from Muscle Fish, a Berkeley software company that Audible Magic acquired in 2000.

One potential snag in implementing the company's technology at YouTube is that the database of audio for movies and television shows is incomplete. ``We have to have access to all the television and film content to be able to fingerprint,'' Ikezoye said.

``It isn't that complicated of a process,'' he added. ``It could be done in months.''

Meanwhile, Audible Magic is also working on a way to compare video images themselves. Ikezoye said that service should be ready later in the year.

Video fingerprinting has lagged audio fingerprinting because video files are far bigger and more complex than audio files, said Jim Hollingsworth, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Gracenote, a competitor to Audible Magic that is helping MySpace identify copyrighted music.

But being able to do so would fill some gaps in the audio-fingerprinting process. In the absence of video fingerprints, for instance, a TV show that is dubbed with a homemade soundtrack would not be flagged by a filter.

Still, representatives of entertainment companies said existing technology can go a long way to preventing copyright infringement and they want Google to implement it.

The news that Google was ready to start filtering, however, was greeted with skepticism. ```YouTube and Google have been promising filtering tools for many, many months, while the damage to copyright owners continues,'' a spokesman for Viacom said.

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