RIAA to CNET: follow Google, nix video-to-MP3 conversions

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) wants to put an end to software and services that enable people to rip songs from music videos.

Cary Sherman, CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America
(Credit: Greg Sandoval/CNET)

Two days after YouTube-MP3.org, a site that takes music videos and converts their songs into MP3 files, was blocked from accessing YouTube, the RIAA has asked CNET to remove software from Download.com that performs a similar function. CNET, which is owned by CBS, is the publisher of Download.com.

The RIAA, the trade group representing the four largest record companies, began pressuring Google to start cracking down on the MP3-conversion service about a year ago, according to music industry sources. That's about the same time the trade group said that it began appealing to Download.com to do the same.

"More than a year ago, we asked Download.com to remove applications that are used to steal our members' content," the RIAA said in a statement. "Download.com continues to ignore our requests, and many of these applications are still being promoted on the site. Download.com is profiting from this infringement, through advertisements and other ways it derives revenue when people use the site to download these applications."

The RIAA focused its criticism on software found at Download.com, called YouTubeDownloader. The software's description at Download.com reads:

"YouTube Downloader is a popular, free program that enables you to download and convert online videos ... for later viewing on your desktop or mobile device. It can convert files to MOV, MP4, 3GP, WMV, AVI or MP3. The name 'YouTube Downloader' is terribly misleading because the program, in fact, downloads a whole lot more than just YouTube videos. On the developer's site, you can find an extensive list of additional supported sites, including Facebook and Vimeo."

The RIAA noted that the software had more than 108 million downloads, and Download.com editors gave it four and a half out of five stars. The organisation also pointed out that there are many other similar applications available on the site, "which can be used to steal content from CBS, which owns Download.com".

CNET declined to respond to the RIAA, but what I've learned from poking around internally is this: CNET's policy is that Download.com is not in any position to determine whether a piece of software is legal or not, or whether it can be used for illegal activity. As I understand it, many of the software at issue have significant non-infringing uses. As for removing illegal software, CNET has a record of doing that. When the RIAA made a request to pull LimeWire, the once popular file-sharing software, CNET managers declined, until a US federal district judge ruled in 2010 that the service did violate copyright law.

A colleague pointed out that this is the same position taken by Google regarding search results. Google may have banned YouTube-MP3.org from accessing YouTube, but key in the words "YouTube" and "conversion" into Google search, and a link to YouTube-MP3.org is the first thing you see.

YouTubeDownloader and YouTube-MP3.org are just a small sample of the software and services that perform these conversions and also offer non-infringing uses. The big question is whether a company like CNET can be held responsible when someone misuses the software.

Mark Litvack, a former director for the antipiracy division of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), said that he doubts very much that the RIAA wants to sue CNET and also that he didn't know of any cases in which a third-party provider was sued for distributing ripping software. "I don't see any need for CNET to change its policy."

Eric Goldman wasn't as confident that CNET is in a good position. Goldman, an associate professor of law at Santa Clara University School of Law, and director of the school's High Tech Law Institute, said that the law here is "murky", and that the first thing that would need to be decided is whether the conversion software offered by Download.com is illegal. But he noted that copyright owners are casting a wide net for those they hold responsible for violations.

"We're seeing copyright owners going after people who use tools to infringe," Goldman said. "We're seeing them go after people who provide the tools, and then the people who provide support for the tools. We're seeing people several steps away from actual infringers accused of infringement."

He said that if the content on Download.com was user-generated and not editorially controlled, it would be a cinch. The service would be protected under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and CNET could not be held liable for any copyright violations committed by users.

He said that the one area that could prove troublesome for CNET is the anti-circumvention rules. It is illegal to circumvent copy protection schemes on copyrighted material.

"The dilemma is whether converting a YouTube video into an MP3 is a circumvention of someone's technological protection measures," Goldman said. "If it is, then the toolmaker is almost certainly liable, and those that provide support could be held liable, as well."

Goldman finished by saying that he thinks the rules "stink", and that there is a need for much more clarity.


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