By: Mitchell Block
In 1973, fresh out of film school, I wrote and directed the dramatic short No Lies, an important film because of its open, and unfettered, discussion of sexual violence against women.
Today, No Lies is included in the National Registry and in the curriculum for film theory, women’s studies, and anthropology college courses across the country. However, due to its subject matter, it struggled to find distribution after its initial release. So, I elected to distribute it myself.
More than 40 years later, my company, Direct Cinema, has produced, marketed, or distributed works by some of the leading figures in filmmaking, including John Lasseter, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Ken Burns, among others – their films have collectively won nearly 30 Oscars® and have garnered close to 100 nominations.
My business grew and flourished by providing copies of little seen, often underappreciated, frequently challenging works to institutions that could benefit most from seeing them, including colleges, universities, public libraries, senior centers, and prisons.
As I write this, however, our business model is over.
It started in the 1980s with the invention of VHS formats. Then came the rise of the MPEG format in the ‘90s and, with it, illegal file sharing of motion pictures. Then, in 2005, came the death knell – with the emergence of YouTube and similar video streaming companies.
There are currently hundreds of films from Direct Cinema’s past and current catalog that have been uploaded to YouTube and other sites like it. Every single one of them, from the popular PBS series Carrier to Disney’s Oscar®-winning animation short Tin Toy, is being streamed illegally.
One YouTube user called “2009dinia” has had Tin Toy up and running since 2012. On that page alone, the film has received more than 1 million pirated views.
YouTube is fully aware that its site is rife with such content, which infringes on copyright and robs creatives of the earnings they deserve – even as the uploaders of the content make money from it via advertising. However, instead of actively seeking to curb piracy, YouTube puts the burden on copyright holders, like me, to flag videos for removal.
Needless to say, I spend a lot of time flagging our pirated videos on YouTube.
This task used to be much easier thanks to the Content Verification Program (CVP), a tool that allowed me to enter a Direct Cinema title into the YouTube search bar, and simply click a box next to each result that violated my copyright. I could then mass-submit a page of pirated uploads for one title, all at once, and then move on to the next page or the next title.
Even then, it was an endless game of Whack-A-Mole to keep on top of all the piracy, but the tool helped, allowing me to take down hundreds of infringing videos in a matter of minutes.
Until one day, when I logged onto my YouTube account and discovered that the Content Verification tool was gone. Vanished.
The tool was (and is) still a feature of the site, but my access to it had been removed.
Undeterred, I went through the rigmarole of applying to get the tool back, but my application was swiftly rejected, with the following note from the anonymous YouTube powers that be:
“We have decided that you are not an appropriate candidate for this tool. The CVP tool is designed for large copyright holders who expect to have an ongoing need to have content removed from YouTube.”
My company may not be publicly traded, but with a few hundred titles and decades of experience, we certainly have an “ongoing need to have content removed from YouTube.”
Having denied us the process that made it at least somewhat possible to protect ourselves from streaming piracy en masse, the YouTube rejection email proceeded to invite us to flag future infringing content on a case by case basis, by filling out a separate web form for each offending video.
Concerned, I wrote a message to YouTube’s help center:
“Our works are stolen in large numbers on your site and providing individual notices for each take down is time-consuming and ineffective. Historically, we had a way of ticking a box and signing off. We would like that method returned to us.”
Months later, I have yet to receive a response to this query from anyone at YouTube, or Google, its parent company. Instead, my requests to be reconsidered are just blocked automatically, with no email address to write to or phone number to call.
Being ignored when I’m trying to find a simple solution to the problem is infuriating, but more importantly, I simply don’t have time for this. I’m trying to run a business that supports independent filmmakers and provides high-quality cinematic offerings to community institutions worldwide
I am far from a “studio fat cat,” not that the fat cats don’t have the same rights and also work their tails off. Creatives, big and small, are all in this together – piracy hurts us all, from the director of the next comic book blockbuster to a little-known animator trying to get a short into a festival.
Based on the above exchanges, it’s obvious that YouTube just doesn’t care. It’s not in their interest to change things because their business model depends on the monetization of content that they don’t create or own. Long-outdated exceptions in our country’s laws allow them to get away with it, evading accountability for illegal content that appears on their site.
Of course, when YouTube is selling video streams of its own licensed films, other pirated copies on the site have a way of quickly vanishing. (Try to find a free copy of the Warner classic, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, for instance.)
Apparently, someone at YouTube still has access to the CVP tool. I wish the same could be said for Direct Cinema and other indie film providers who have been deprived of this convenient method to limit the online infringement of their offerings.
Our legislators have the power to help. As I write this, NAFTA renegotiations continue to unfold. The new trade agreement could feature strong copyright protections and its “safe harbor” provisions could be eradicated, taking away the blanket immunity big tech companies like YouTube now enjoy from the innumerable acts of piracy occurring on their platforms.
It’s high time Congress forced these sites to own up to the stolen content that they inadvertently host, but openly use to turn a substantial profit. YouTube must be held responsible for the materials its users share, taking stronger measures to ensure that the person who uploads a video also owns its copyright.
In the meantime, I will keep removing pirated Direct Cinema movies from YouTube. It’s a lot harder to do than it used to be, but I have no choice. My livelihood, and the livelihoods of all the creative people whose work I support, depends on it.