Science-fiction fans from all over the world were avidly watching the live broadcast of the Hugo Awards last Sunday from Chicon 7, the World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago. This is a venerable event with much more longevity than you might imagine: Attendees were celebrating the event's 70th year. One of the award winners, British author Neil Gaiman, was recognized for a script for the cult BBC TV series "Doctor Who." Following the showing of a clip from the episode, Gaiman took the podium for the award ceremony to make his acceptance speech.
Then, however, the broadcast was abruptly cut off. A robot at Ustream, presumably using data provided by the BBC, decided on the basis of that short clip that this was an illegal broadcast of "Doctor Who" and pulled the plug. Worse, it turned out that no one at the Hugo Awards or at Ustream was empowered to turn it back on again. Ustream has promised to upgrade its robot to understand fair use, but the proposal is both ridiculous -- even judges struggle with fair use arguments -- and dangerous.
This is an object lesson in the problem with entrusting the policing of copyright to software. Fundamentally, the use of copyrighted materials is a matter of discretion and judgment. The clip shown at the Hugo Awards was legitimate by any measure: a fair use of an extract to illustrate a news item, plus a clip supplied with the approval of the copyright holder. But to know that it was legitimately present in the broadcast involved complex human judgment and the balancing of gray areas to reach a sound conclusion that survives legal scrutiny.
The Hugo Awards debacle wasn't just an isolated instance, either. After last night's Democratic National Convention, anyone who sought to watch the video of the evening's presentations on BarackObama.com or YouTube found the video flagged by copyright claims shortly after it finished, according to Wired. Ironically, YouTube is the official streaming partner of the Democratic National Convention, yet according to Wired, the site put a copyright blocking message on the video. Anyone trying to access the video was presented with a message claiming the stream had been caught infringing on the copyright of one of many possible content companies, including, "WMG, SME, Associated Press (AP), UMG, Dow Jones, New York Times Digital, The Harry Fox Agency, Inc. (HFA), Warner Chappell, UMPG Publishing, and EMI Music Publishing."
A campaign spokesman later told Wired that there was a "technical error on YouTube that inadvertently triggered a copyright message at the end of the live stream Tuesday night."