"youtube-dl" is a popular free software tool for downloading videos from YouTube and other user-uploaded video platforms. GitHub recently took down youtube-dl’s code repository at the behest of the Recording Industry Association of America, potentially stopping many thousands of users, and other programs and services, that rely on it.
On its face, this might seem like an ordinary copyright takedown of the type that happens every day. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a copyright holder can ask a platform to take down an allegedly infringing post and the platform must comply. (The platform must also allow the alleged infringer to file a counter-notice, requiring the copyright holder to file a lawsuit if she wants the allegedly infringing work kept offline.) But there’s a huge difference here with some frightening ramifications: youtube-dl doesn’t infringe on any RIAA copyrights.
youtube-dl doesn’t use RIAA-member labels’ music in any way. The makers of youtube-dl simply shared information with the public about how to perform a certain task—one with many completely lawful applications.
RIAA’s argument relies on a different section of the DMCA, Section 1201. DMCA 1201 says that it’s illegal to bypass a digital lock in order to access or modify a copyrighted work. Copyright holders have argued that it’s a violation of DMCA 1201 to bypass DRM even if you’re doing it for completely lawful purposes; for example, if you’re downloading a video on YouTube for the purpose of using it in a way that’s protected by fair use. (And thanks to the way that copyright law has been globalized via trade agreements, similar laws exist in many other jurisdictions too.) RIAA argues that since youtube-dl could be used to download music owned by RIAA-member labels, no one should be able to use the tool, even for completely lawful purposes.
This is an egregious abuse of the notice-and-takedown system, which is intended to resolve disputes over allegedly infringing material online. Again, youtube-dl doesn’t use RIAA-member labels’ music in any way. The makers of youtube-dl simply shared information with the public about how to perform a certain task—one with many completely lawful applications.
We've put together an explainer video on this takedown, and its implications for free speech online:
Please share this video with others who use YouTube and other video uploading services. And if you use youtube-dl for lawful purposes, we want to hear from you. Email us at email@example.com and include “youtube-dl” in the subject line.