Understanding Twitch's new content-flagging policy

Twitch launched a new content-flagging system that checks videos for licensed music tracks and mutes them -- with plenty of bugs and a terrible community response. What's going on?
Yesterday, video streaming site Twitch launched a new content-matching algorithm provided by a company called Audible Magic. It scans saved videos in user channels (in Twitch parlance, "VODs") and mutes them in 30-minute blocks if any infringing content is found. Today, Twitch CEO Emmet Shear took to Reddit for an "Ask Me Anything" in which he attempted to clarify this situation (and another regarding its new video-storage policies.) His answers are hard to find (they got downvoted by irate users) and not well organized; we're providing them, with context, here.

What is this algorithm looking for?

Audible Magic is looking for copyrighted music in Twitch videos that isn't authorized to be there -- in other words, it's looking for music owned and controlled by the recording industry. "Ambient music (playing Britney Spears in the background) is not allowed on Twitch unless you've licensed it for that purpose," Shear writes. However, if a game contains licensed music, that might get (rightfully) flagged. Music licensing is complex, and it's unlikely that publishers or developers have licensed broadcast rights to any music they include in their games, even legally. What isn't supposed to get flagged is original in-game music (but that's happening anyway in multiple instances.) "Muting original in-game music is a mistake," Shear writes. "The vast majority of matches seem correct as far as we can tell," he also says.

This sounds kind of familiar. Should it?

YouTube has much the same policy, and last December a large crackdown on videos caused outrage in its game YouTuber community. (Rather than Audible Magic, Google uses its own system called "Content ID," but the idea is the same.) Popular streamer and YouTuber TotalBiscuit devoted an entire show to the topic -- if you're interested in catching up on an educated, inside-the-phenomenon opinion.

What's a VOD? Does this affect livestreams?

Though Twitch is best known as a livestreaming site, it also hosts on-demand videos of users' play sessions that viewers can later play back at any time -- aka VODs. According to the company's official blog post on the new audio-matching policy, as well as comments made by CEO Emmett Shear on Reddit, the algorithm only scans VODs, not livestreams, for copyrighted music: "We have absolutely no intention of running any audio recognition against live video, period," he writes. False positives should be reported to Twitch directly.

30 minutes sounds like a lot...

Yeah, it is. As mentioned above, VODs are muted in 30-minute chunks no matter the duration of the infringing audio. The site would like to get more specific in the future. "In the future we'd like to improve the resolution further, and are working with Audible Magic to make this possible," Shear writes, on Reddit.

Is this affecting developers?

Yep, definitely. Crypt of the NecroDancer developer Ryan Clark noted that his developer streams have been muted erroneously. And it's not just his own streams, of course. If your game's videos are getting muted, they won't be interesting to viewers or streamers; Shear says that false positives should decrease in the near future but it's unclear what other steps the company is taking. Since it's working with a third party (Audible Magic) which maintains the blacklist, this also complicates things. Developers continue to stream their own work, and their own games; these kinds of systems continue to be implemented. Streaming video has become an increasingly important part of game promotion. This is relevant.

Is this a big deal?

If you've been paying attention to the news for the last 15 years, you should already know that the recording industry is very serious about protecting its rights (and its profits) against online infringement. From its perspective, streaming music is just that: infringement. Outside the game space, music label Ultra Records recently sued popular YouTuber Michelle Phan over just this issue, and seeks big damages ($150,000 per instance of infringement). Attorney Stephen McArthur, who has written about YouTube's Content ID system on Gamasutra blogs says that systems like this are fallout from the lengthy and expensive lawsuit Viacom filed against YouTube: "Viacom filed a billion dollar lawsuit against YouTube for allowing users to upload and watch their copyrighted material. Though YouTube ultimately won the lawsuit, ContentID gives YouTube/Twitch extra protection against those kind of lawsuits that have the potential to take down the entire company if successful."

Why is Twitch doing this?

The obvious conjecture is that it's a step in the path to being acquired by YouTube, as has been rumored for months now. That's impossible to confirm at the moment, as the parties involved will not comment. For his part, Shear says it's a necessary step in "laying the groundwork" for new site features that Twitch's user base will like. There's another reason, Shear says: "we want every broadcaster on Twitch to be protected from potential liability. No matter how remote you might feel the issue is, we aren't willing to run the risk someone's life gets ruined over this." To be fair, big legal claims, like those being made against Michelle Phan (see above question) could be devastating. Since easy licenses for streaming licensed music aren't available, says Shear, "this is not something that we want our broadcasters to accept liability for (nor do we want to accept liability for it either)," confirming McArthur's above suspicions.

But can't streamers just share monetization with the rights-holders?

It seems like a simple solution, right? It's in the works, too, but with no ETA. "We would like to provide the ability to allow shared monetization eventually, and we're actively working to provide that type of functionality in the future for those who wish to opt-in," Shear writes. It's complicated, though. The system (obviously) has to get better at pinpointing the licensed music first, for a start. The right relationships have to be put into place. Shear has essentially admitted that this system launched before it was ready; even if he hadn't, it's clear that it did.

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