Here’s the thing about different people playing the same piece of music: sometimes, they’re going to sound similar. And when music is by a composer who died 268 years ago, putting his music in the public domain, a bunch of people might record it and some of them might put it online. In this situation, a combination of copyright bots and corporate intransigence led to a Kafkaesque attack on music.
So far, this is stupid but not unusually stupid in the world of takedowns. It’s what happened after Rhodes got Sony’s notice that earned it a place in the Hall of Shame.
One argument in favor of this process is that there are supposed to be checks and balances. Takedown notices are supposed to only be sent by someone who owns the copyright in the material and actually believes that copyright’s been infringed. And if a takedown notice is wrong, a counter-notice can be sent by someone explaining that they own the work or that it’s not infringement.
Counter-notices have a lot of problems, not the least of which is that the requirements are onerous for small-time creators, requiring a fair bit of personal information. There’s always the fear that, even for someone who knows they own the work, that the other side will sue them anyway, which they cannot afford.
Rhodes did dispute the claim, explaining that “this is my own performance of Bach. Who died 300 years ago. I own all the rights.” Sony rejected this reasoning.
While we don’t know for sure what Sony’s process is, we can guess that a copyright bot, or a human acting just as mechanically, was at the center of this mess. A human doing actual analysis would have looked at a video of a man playing a piece of music older than American copyright law and determined that it was not something they owned. It almost feels like an automatic response also rejected Rhodes’ appeal, because we certainly hope a thoughtful person would have received his notice and accepted it.
Rhodes took his story to Twitter, where it picked up some steam, and emailed the heads of Sony Classical and Sony’s public relations, eventually getting his audio restored. He tweeted “What about the thousands of other musicians without that reach…?” He raises a good point.
None of the supposed checks worked. Public pressure and the persistence of Rhodes was the only reason this complaint went away, despite how the rules are supposed to protect fair use and the public domain.
How many more ways do we need to say that copyright bots and filters don’t work? That mandating them, as the European Union is poised to do, is dangerous and shortsighted? We hear about these misfires roughly the same way they get resolved: because they generate enough noise. How many more lead to a creator’s work being taken down with no recourse?