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How one musician took on the world’s biggest TV network over copyright—and won

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How one musician took on the world’s biggest TV network over copyright—and won

“The torrent they got the music from was just called like 123456.mp3."


A dramatic moment from Glee maybe isn't the first thing you expect to see in an Ars story, but promise there's a point here.


You’ve heard Kerry Muzzey’s work (BandcampSpotify), even if you haven’t heard of him. The 50-year-old classical music composer from Joliet, Illinois, who now lives in Los Angeles, produces haunting orchestral scores that soundtrack some of the most poignant moments in film and television. When Finn Hudson kissed Rachel Berry for the first time on TV’s Glee, it was Muzzey’s stripped-back piano playing in the background. Some of his works have been choreographed and performed on So You Think You Can Dance?, too.


The use of Muzzey’s music across pop culture has no doubt brought the veteran composer some success and acclaim. And around 2012, he decided to see for himself, searching for his name on YouTube. Muzzey recalls the site’s algorithm surfaced 20 or 40 videos. The majority were fan compilations that teenagers obsessed with Glee had painstakingly put together to memorialize their two favorite characters' love story—and they were all soundtracked to the full version of Muzzey’s music.

“It was really kind of cool and validating, especially for someone who was a complete independent, to have a kid finding a piece of instrumental music, which is the most uncool kind of music for a kid to find, and to make a tribute montage using it,” he explains. “It was stuff nobody would have a problem with.”


No one had a problem, that is, until a few years later when Muzzey gained access to YouTube’s ContentID system, the platform’s automated copyright tracker.


That handful of Glee fan videos just scratched the surface. Unbeknownst to the composer, waiting beyond a YouTube search for his name was a seeming subindustry that consistently used Muzzey’s music without his knowledge. ContentID surfaced roughly 20,000 videos for Muzzey in the first month—200 or 400 more got flagged every single day.


Many of these works weren’t from amateur obsessives tinkering around with video editing software. Some were annoying but smallscale, like professional wedding videographers who had decided Muzzey’s music was the perfect backing track for a bride’s big day, but they didn’t want to pay for the rights. “Things like that were mildly angering,” he says.


But other video makers clearly should’ve had no issue shelling for a license. There were projects from ad agencies producing spots to hawk bottled water, hotel chains, and car commercials. Yet the thing that annoyed Muzzey the most were the pages upon pages of full TV episodes uploaded to YouTube that returned a positive hit through the ContentID system. They came from all over Asia: Vietnam, South Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand. China was one of the biggest offenders.

“It was overwhelming,” Muzzey tells Ars about the hours spent poring over the results. The list of offending work was growing so fast that by the time Muzzey had looked at a couple of videos to ensure YouTube’s copyright infringement system wasn’t misfiring, another page of 25 search results had been appended to the end.


A never-ending stream of videos from across the world was evidently co-opting Muzzey’s work. And the list of infringers eventually included one of the world’s biggest TV networks.

Copyright and wrong

Copyright infringement on the Internet is as old as the Internet itself. Lax rules and the free spirit ethos that embodied the early days of the Web made it seem almost acceptable to share illicitly obtained copies of materials with fellow users, and every digitally connected generation since has its own memories of getting files and footage illegally. For early Internet users, IRC channels were one main method; later browsers will still swell with pride when Kazaa or Limewire are mentioned.


Today, those wanting free access to pirated material are spoilt for choice: they can gain access to free books through Lib-Gen; movies and TV shows from sites like Putlocker, illegal streaming services, or through torrents; and Internet users in 2021 can even educate themselves for free. Sci-Hub’s one-woman battle against the tyranny of paid-for access to academic papers means it’s possible to get almost any research paper you could want without handing over a single penny. As the coronavirus whips up a perfect storm of people stuck at home because movie theaters and concert venues are closed, coupled with less disposable income because of the mass ranks of unemployment as a result of the pandemic, piracy is on the rise. There was a 33 percent piracy increase in the US and UK within the first month of lockdown, from February 2020 to March 2020, according to Muso, a company that tracks online piracy.


So even today, the Internet is built on a remix and republish ethos—a mantra that has laid waste to copyright and the ability for copyright holders to lay claim to their work. The reason we all log on to YouTube now and not any number of its oddly named competitors like Revver or Vimeo is in part because of the site’s willingness to look the other way about copyrighted material uploaded onto the platform. Notably, a Saturday Night Live skit called Lazy Sunday was one of YouTube’s earliest viral successes.


Of course, YouTube has attempted to clean up its act since. It’s now as much a site for professional production companies to post full TV shows, documentaries, and music videos as it is an online repository for hobbyists with video cameras. ContentID has been praised by those who own the rights to works and lambasted by those who think the commercialism of the site has robbed it of its creative streak. Though Alphabet, parent company of YouTube and Google, doesn’t break down copyright removal requests on YouTube specifically, across Google it received requests to take down content from more than 220,000 individual copyright owners in 2019. (YouTube declined to comment for this story.)


While this copyright system is strong in theory, in practice there are loopholes. “Power asymmetries mean YouTube is not really incentivized to care about an appropriate resolution when problems crop up for individual musicians,” explains Kevin Erickson, director of the Future of Music Coalition, a Washington, DC-based lobby group campaigning for musicians’ rights. That asymmetry means there are still people—companies, even—who get around the system and who think copyright doesn’t work for them.


Surprisingly, global entertainment behemoth China Central Television stands firmly within this copyright-antagonistic group.



Enlarge / A technician works inside China Central Television's (CCTV) satellite Olympic broadcast facility for the Beijing Olympics.

Three strikes

China Central Television (CCTV) is a network of dozens of TV channels that broadcasts video content to more than a billion people inside China. As you’d expect from a monolithic media outlet in the centrally controlled Communist state, it’s an arm of the government. The public service broadcaster is nominally like the UK’s BBC or America’s PBS, but in reality it’s closely connected to the Chinese state. And CCTV has repeatedly shown it’s more than happy to breach copyright.


Among the huge numbers of results that Muzzey found when he ran his regular ContentID searches were scores of hits from TV shows broadcast on CCTV. In all, he found 17 TV programs and movies emanating from CCTV that used some of his music. Some of those videos weren’t posted by official CCTV channels; instead they came from third-party uploaders wanting to share episodes of their favorite shows more freely. Muzzey was infuriated: he had previously pursued a large TV production company based in China through a lawyer years ago because some of his music ended up being used on their programs—unlicensed. The case was pursued by the Chinese arm of the law firm and ended up in an out-of-court settlement that netted Muzzey precisely zero dollars. “I didn’t realize how expensive it was to use a law firm like that,” he says. But he had thought that would be the end of his need to pursue legal action in China. It turned out it wasn’t.



Enlarge / A long (35 posts) Twitter thread from Muzzey when he was in the thick of learning about CCTV's approach to copyright.


Through the third-party uploads, Muzzey was able to match back the use of his music to certain TV shows, then to specific episodes. That led him to the official uploads that CCTV would occasionally post themselves on YouTube. “I found quite a few usages,” he says. “My music was in anything from silly reality TV shows to dating shows, but then also scripted dramas and movies.” He started using YouTube’s built-in copyright claim system to strike each one of the videos under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA); most of the videos had at least a million views already. (A copyright strike under the DMCA is treated differently to a ContentID claim on YouTube: ContentID claims can result in the offending material being taken down, or any profits made from it redirected to the rightful copyright owner. DMCA strikes result in warnings against the channel owners.) At the same time, Muzzey also laid strikes against a handful of other Chinese TV networks.


That angered the TV network.


Muzzey hadn’t considered the chain of events that was set off every time he pressed a button to claim copyright over music used in a YouTube video illegally. It triggers an alert that gets passed through YouTube to the uploader, warning them that someone believes they’ve acted against the law. YouTube cautions uploaders alleged to have breached copyright rules through a three-strike system. Three strikes, and your channel is terminated. For rank-and-file YouTubers, the strikes can pile up quickly. But, according to Muzzey, YouTube “do[es] acknowledge that if it’s a highly monetized YouTube partner, or one of their premium uploaders, that uploader gets something of a grace period to resolve the problem.” YouTube provides seven days to members of its YouTube Partner Program to rectify the situation, during which time the channel remains live.


In this instance, the scale of the strikes Muzzey was filing against CCTV blew through any grace period to resolve the problem. It was clear there had been a pattern of persistent, unrepentant copyright infringement of Muzzey’s works—alongside potentially hundreds of infringement incidents against other creators.


The sheer volume of copyright strikes ultimately compelled CCTV to engage with Muzzey.


Muzzey's composition, "Architect of the Mind," is used for a performance on So You Think You Can Dance.


The email arrived in Muzzey’s inbox with a ping. Every time a copyright strike is filed, information about the person claiming their rights have been infringed is sent to the person alleged to have done wrong. That’s how CCTV ended up emailing Muzzey to ask what was wrong.

“It was like dealing with a 12-year-old YouTuber who was coming up with every trick in the book he found through a YouTube video,” says Muzzey.


While the tone of the emails was always respectful, CCTV came up with a litany of excuses for why they were entitled to use Muzzey’s music in their shows, even though they’d never approached him about negotiating rights to do so. They claimed that an agreement they’d signed with the Music Copyright Society of China (MCSC), which is the equivalent of ASCAP or BMI, allowed them to use any music they want—which isn’t correct. At another time, the Chinese network claimed the use was permissible because they’d read on a website that all music that comes out of the United States is released under Creative Commons licenses. At another point, the network admitted the way they source music is from torrent files, which contain thousands of unlabeled tracks under genres like “Epic music torrent” or “Best emotional music torrent.”

“It was a Pandora’s box that just kept getting darker and darker the further I fell down into that hole,” Muzzey says. “One of the networks, I don’t remember which one exactly, first they said they didn’t know what the title of the music was, and they said we have no way of knowing what the song title was because the torrent we got the music from was just called like 123456.mp3. It was just called something.”


CCTV’s negotiations over the rights to Muzzey’s music lasted nine long months. “Dealing with anything in China is the worst kind of bureaucracy, because every answer takes a month to get a reply,” he explains. At times, the long email chains with CCTV representatives would spool on with Muzzey being asked to repeat the issue over and over in messages containing two dozen people in the CC field. “Then someone else would come forward and say, ‘I’m the person to resolve this,’” he recalls.


CCTV’s solution? To give Muzzey a credit in the info field of the video—something he felt wasn’t sufficient, given the millions of views the videos already had. “Your little TV show you did already has a million views. It’s been out there for four years. I don’t need my name in the credits,” says Muzzey. “I need a license fee. What I don’t need specifically in China is exposure, because then this will keep happening.” (CCTV was approached for this story using multiple emails available online over the course of multiple months, but the organization did not respond to any messages.)



Enlarge / China Central Television's (CCTV) main YouTube page. But you can kind of think of CCTV as an ESPN, a central brand with many different channels to offer.


The conversation was always respectful, and CCTV representatives seemed to acknowledge the gravity of what they’d done when they realized their agreement with the MCSC didn’t cover their use of the music—nor that, as they claimed to believe, all American music was available to use under a Creative Commons license. In part, that might have been because of the leverage Muzzey held over the Chinese network: he was copying-in YouTube executives to his emails, pointing out that the representatives from CCTV knew that they were filing false counter-notifications. The number of copyright flags had reached a point that CCTV was in danger of losing its YouTube channel, a fact Muzzey believes was not lost on the network.

“The only thing making them do it was they wanted the strikes released from their account,” he claims. “Not just because it limits their ability to monetize, but because it limits the time length you can post, so instead of being able to post a full, hour-long episode of something, you’re limited to under 15 minutes, I think. Basically they just wanted their functionality back.”


That leverage was handy, because Muzzey did not want a cross-border legal battle. “The thing it revealed was they have a business model built on theft, which is kind of what we’ve always heard about China,” he says. “Having used an attorney there to try and settle a much larger claim for me a few years ago, it was an enlightening experience in that the lawyers said that IP as a concept is relatively new to China, and so the laws don’t really provide remedies for infringement.”


With the prospect of losing YouTube hanging over them, CCTV folded. After eight years of Muzzey checking his rights with ContentID and a year of engaging in conversation with CCTV, the network accepted a licensing deal Muzzey proposed. The musician won’t say how much it was for—“When you say you charged money for a fee, some people change their perspective,” he explains—only saying that all his deals with Chinese TV networks who have improperly used his music have been “pretty healthy settlements.” That’s not because he was charging a lot; Muzzey says he had set his fees at around $1,500 for a master and sync license for a TV show and Web streaming use. Rather, the deals with networks grew solely because the scale of the use of Muzzey’s music was so great.

“Some had used 25 episodes' worth of music,” he says.


Muzzey’s saga with CCTV wasn’t the first time he had to fight for his right to be recognized as the creator of his music—and it won’t be the last. “I wish it was,” he says. “I’m fucking exhausted.

“I’m so fortunate that I can make a living as a composer,” he explains. “I’ve only been doing it full-time proper for the last 11 years, and I get how completely lucky I am to be able to do that. I’ve had some good fortune along the way. But I did not expect that this would become 50 percent of my job and my life for the past seven years or so. I did not expect that.”


Muzzey had hoped that the advancement of technology might make the process easier over time, that tools like ContentID could streamline things for artists. But he says it hasn’t. “I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that this isn’t a blip: this is the new normal, and it’s getting worse, not better,” he says. “Part of that problem is that people like me don’t realize their stuff is out there or think I’m not famous, so how can it be possible, not realizing that if you have a Soundcloud page, your music has been ripped, put into torrents, probably in a TV show in China somewhere, and that’s just how that world works. You don’t realize it until it’s revealed to you layer by layer.”


So for now he continues, layer by layer, to peel back this all too common problem. Kerry Muzzey is a creator in an increasingly digital world, and that's a place where copyright enforcement hasn’t quite come into bloom.



Source: How one musician took on the world’s biggest TV network over copyright—and won

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