Star Trek and CBS: An Enterprising Takedown

For years, studios and networks have depended on San Diego Comic-Con to get fans excited about their upcoming shows and movies. Though the format shifted to an online format this year, that didn’t stop the likes of Marvel, CBS, and Cartoon Network from showing up and streaming their events online. You’d think that these huge copyright holderssome famous for their aggressive takedownswould know how to keep from running afoul of takedowns. You would be wrong.

CBS, owners of the Star Trek TV shows, have been churning out Star Trek content, with four separate series either planned or in progress. As a result, Comic-Con serves as a way to get fans engaged and tease them with upcoming releases. The Star Trek panel started like any other, with interviews, lamenting not being able to be there in person, and discussion of the show itself. Then they transitioned to a read-through of a Discovery episode with the cast tuning in virtually. That’s when things got weird.           

Watching the panel on YouTube at the introduction of the read-through, you can hear theme music playing in the background. Triumphant string sections punctuated by booming percussion, the music of the Star Trek franchise. The music provides a thematic setting for the duration of the read-through and pairs with other sound effects that augment the script. By having the cast read the script with sound effects and storyboard drawings coming alive as animations, they tried to make use of the opportunity a virtual event gave them to do something unique.

However, if you watched the livestream, it went a little differently. Shortly after it beganprobably not coincidentally when the copyrighted music began playingviewers were hit with a familiar YouTube screen "Video unavailable: This video contains content from CBS CID, who has blocked it on copyright grounds.” About twenty minutes later the stream resumed. CBS later explained that, "There was an issue with our content protection that unfortunately blocked the video briefly for users who came into the feed after the panel had started.”

So while we don’t know for sure what occurred, it certainly looks like CBS uses an automated system for finding and blocking copyrighted material, which could be YouTube’s Content ID, since this video was hosted there. CBS was apparently not alone in its virtual Comic-Con woes. Cartoon Network also found its parent company taking down its own panel for copyright reasons.

Although embarrassing, this is not a rare event. Big media and entertainment companies often end up taking down their own content, or content they licensed, through the complex and error-prone machinery of copyright enforcement systems like ContentID and DMCA takedowns. And if major copyright holders can't stop those systems from taking down their own content, how much worse must it be for small creators?

Regardless, congrats to CBS for boldly going where so many others have gone before: headlong into the problems of automated copyright filtering.

July 23, 2020