Copyright maximalists just don’t know when to stop. Having failed in their 2020 attempt to use U.S. law to force GitHub to permanently cut off access to youtube-dl, an open source tool that allows users to download and preserve videos, on the theory that the tool can also be used for infringing purposes, the music publishers have turned to the German courts instead. But one small German hosting provider, represented by the German Society for Civil Rights (GFF), is fighting back.
The saga started two years ago, when the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) invoked the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to demand that GitHub take down the repository for youtube-dl, claiming that the software breaks digital locks on videos and could allow people to save copies of songs from the major music labels that RIAA represents. Concerned about losing its crucial safe harbor from copyright liability, GitHub initially complied, sparking a widespread outcry. The tool has been around since 2006, and is used by journalists and activists to save eyewitness videos, by YouTubers to save backup copies of their own uploaded videos, and by people with slow or unreliable network connections to download videos in high resolution and watch them without buffering interruptions. As we explained then, youtube-dl doesn’t infringe or encourage the infringement of any copyrighted works, nor does it “circumvent” any technical protection measures on YouTube videos. But the developers made some small adjustments to remove any possible doubt, and GitHub promptly restored the repository.
Sony Music, Warner Music, and Universal Music seem to be hoping German law will give them leverage that they can’t get in the United States. They are suing a small hosting provider, called Uberspace, on essentially the same theories that failed to impress GitHub (and EFF) two years ago. In fact, their case seems to be even weaker: Uberspace doesn’t even host youtube-dl – it simply hosts the youtube-dl homepage, which links to GitHub. But lawsuits like this can be expensive to fight, which means small companies may simply fold under pressure.
But with help from GFF, Uberspace is standing up to the music labels. In a brief filed today, Uberspace explains that youtube-dl is simply a tool that doesn’t circumvent any digital locks, and therefore Uberspace can’t be compelled to take down the homepage.
Just because a music behemoth can afford to forum-shop doesn’t mean it should be able to force an important technology off the internet. We’re not experts in German law, but we’ll be watching this case closely. You can read more about it here.