As has been widely reported, an official Romney campaign ad that showed President Obama singing a line from the Al Green song "Let's Stay Together" has been hit with a takedown from BMG Rights Management — the group that controls the publishing rights of the original song — and pulled from YouTube. The takedown is an obvious abuse of the DMCA process: the ad was a clear fair use and therefore noninfringing.
But the unfortunate real story here is that this kind of takedown abuse is all too common, and we're likely to see it again this campaign season. Four years ago, as the last presidential campaign season started heating up, we documented the troubling trend of political speech coming under the copyright hammer. After getting ads pulled by overzealous rightsholders, the McCain-Palin campaign sent a letter to YouTube asking for special consideration for political campaigns.
YouTube's response, four years ago, was a reasonable one: it doesn't favor speech from a particular class of users, "whether they are an individual, a large corporation, or a candidate for public office." That makes sense. But YouTube went one step further, refusing to adopt any policy to limit abuse of the DMCA.
In May of this year, anticipating a new round of politically motivated takedowns, we asked YouTube to re-examine those practices and engage in good online citizenship, and to resist copyright-based censorship efforts:
YouTube and other intermediaries (like Facebook) should take a second look at that position. UGC sites and social media have become essential tools for distributing speech, and not just by users who will be able to get special consideration. ... The DMCA abusers still deserve a good shaming for their role, but YouTube and other UGC and social media sites can help users fight back. It's time that they did so, actively and consistently.
Google's new Copyright Transparency Report — which for now only covers takedown requests on Search results, not on YouTube or other products — shows that they already refuse to comply with 3% of takedowns sent in error or to silence speech. Google deserves to be commended for that behavior.
But Google can still do more: today it can put the Romney campaign ad back online, and going forward it can expand the transparency report to cover YouTube and push back on more bogus takedowns. It's as important as ever in a political season when getting political messages out quickly is critical and the news cycle won't wait for content to be put back up.
UPDATE: The video is back up and staying up. Well done, YouTube, well done internets.