At the Washington Free Beacon, Joseph Bottum explores a recent fuss at YouTube involving copyrights and composers dead for almost three centuries.
Bottum relates some other news stories on the matter, in which people playing music from Johann Sebastian Bach in videos on YouTube were told that they were playing copyrighted music and it would have to be taken down or they would have to allow advertising on the video. The idea is kind of ludicrous, because Bach's music has long been in the public domain and can be played by anyone who can master it.
The problem, it turns out, is that certain performances of Bach pieces are indeed copyrighted by the music companies that released them. When the YouTube algorithm that sniffs around and looks for copyright violations encounters the computer code that makes sounds like the sounds it knows are copyrighted, it flags them and the person who posted the video gets a notice about it.
Bottum's point is that any human being checking on this would know that you can't copyright music in the public domain and that someone who plays Bach on their very own piano is not stealing music from anyone even though the songs sound the same. But an algorithm is too simple-minded to make a judgment call like that. YouTube makes the whole thing more of a mess because it makes it hard to file a notice to undo the violation.
It's a problem that YouTube doesn't have an incentive to fix unless someone sitting on a bench makes them, which means we will probably have to wait on America's favorite number one-hit: a lawsuit.