GitHub blocks public access to youtube-dl after RIAA issues DMCA notice

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Monday, October 26, 2020

youtube-dl's GitHub repository currently shows the repository is disabled notice.
Image: GitHub.

On Friday, code hosting and sharing website GitHub blocked the public access to youtube-dl, a software which can download videos from the internet via the command-line. The blockade came after GitHub received a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) take-down notice from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). After stripping the metadata from the notice, GitHub published the take-down notice on their site.

Initially started in July 2008 by Ricardo Garcia, youtube-dl is a script written in Python which can download videos from multiple websites including YouTube, LiveLeak and Vimeo. youtube-dl is a FLOSS software and is under public domain. Currently, the repository on GitHub is locked for viewers other than maintainers of the project.

RIAA's DMCA notice alleged the script's purpose of existence was to "circumvent the technological protection measures used by authorized streaming services such as YouTube" and "reproduce and distribute music videos and sound recordings owned by our member companies without authorization for such use".

youtube-dl has multiple unit tests in its source code, which test whether the software works in different circumstances or not. Some of the tests include checking if the script can download Creative Commons licensed videos, videos which did not have square pixels, videos with no age restriction, "offensive to some audiences" per YouTube community and age-restricted videos. One of the tests included the URL of some copyrighted songs. Citing this test, RIAA's take-down notice claimed "comments in the youtube-dl source code make clear that the source code was designed and is marketed for the purpose of circumventing YouTube's technological measures".

RIAA's notice published by GitHub alleged violation of 17 U.S. Code § 1201 Circumvention of copyright protection systems which says "No person shall circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title". RIAA listed a number of forks of youtube-dl and requested GitHub via the notice they all be made inaccessible.

The notice did not list any incident of anyone using youtube-dl to download or share copyrighted material, nor mention any damages that actually occurred. Unremarked by the notice, YouTube allows videos to be licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license. When a copyright holder chooses to release their work, be it a photograph, a video, or audio, under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license, they allow everyone to freely own, share or modify the work as long as the reusers properly attribute the author of the work. YouTube also hosts many audio and video recordings in the public domain which can be used for any purpose without any restrictions.

Using a browser, one can simply right click on a photo, video, or audio on the internet to download it.
Image: user:acagastya.

youtube-dl is used by thousands of people around the world. Multiple Creative Commons-licensed and public domain videos on Wikimedia Commons are uploaded via a tool called video2commons, which relies on youtube-dl to download media. youtube-dl also lets users download videos from LiveLeak — a video-sharing platform for citizen journalism. Videos downloaded using youtube-dl are also used for the purpose of fair use, or for evidence.

Screenshot showing how youtube-dl is used to download a YouTube video in the public domain.
Image: user:acagastya.

youtube-dl comes with a small JavaScript interpreter where it acts as a web-browser would behave while receiving video data from the server. The script has "extractors" for various websites to handle videos from different sources. Whenever something is displayed on the user's screen, the device has a copy of that content. Web browsers "download" data while surfing the web, though most of it is not persistent on the device. It is possible to download copyrighted photos by using a web-browser. The way the world wide web works, there are no technological prevention measures to prevent recording and sharing of content such as RIAA talks about in the notice. Photos and texts can be downloaded by taking screenshots, videos by screen recording tools, and audio by recording on a tape if not an audio recording software.

Multiple users expressed their disappointment on Twitter and Internet Relay Chat. One of the users said "this is yet another example of why we should use git as it was intended, as a distributed network, rather than rely on one single proprietary server". Git is decentralised version-tracking software which is used by a large number of software companies and projects. It is possible to host one's own git server for software development. While Microsoft's GitHub is a centralised git server, development of software using git does not require a GitHub account.

Soon after the public access to the repository was locked, multiple users started sharing the source code via self-hosted git servers, Tor sites and via the Torrent protocol leading to a Streisand effect. Streisand effect is when a measure to censor information causes further spread of that information. The binary files of the software are still available on its website for users to download. Some people came up with esoteric ways to share the source code, by converting the compressed code into photographs and providing shell commands to convert to the source code.

GitHub's DMCA repository, where the takedown notice was published for public viewing, was subject to contant vandalism from multiple GitHub users. One user submitted a pull request, merging the source code of youtube-dl along with the DMCA repository. This enabled users to view youtube-dl's source code from within the DMCA repository, provided they know the commit id.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation said on Twitter "Youtube-dl is a legitimate tool with a world of a lawful uses. Demanding its removal from Github is a disappointing and counterproductive move by the RIAA." Richard Stallman, the founder of Free Software Foundation, has been highly critical of DRM (digital rights management, the subject of the DMCA) for many years now.

Wikinews reached out to Sergey M․, one of the maintainers of youtube-dl script, however Sergey said he "won't give any comments at this time". Later, he shared an update on the IRC channel. Sergey said, "they require complete removal of so called YouTube's rolling cipher implementation [...] GitHub requires in order to reinstate the repo [...] under this conditions I could reinstate it in Saturday/Sunday already but this is an unsatisfactory outcome". He also said, "I can't guarantee whether [or] not we will bend over them considering the situation with @phihag [Philipp Hagemeister] but we'll see soon what we can do in order to keep the max we have and mitigate potential legal issues at the same time".

EFF is yet to respond to Wikinews queries. Wikinews also reached out to Philipp Hagemeister, a former maintainer and contributor of the youtube-dl project to discuss this takedown.

Philipp Hagemeister had previously maintained youtube-dl's source code
Image: Philipp Hagemeister.
Wikinews

When did you get to know about the takedown notice and what were your initial reactions?

Wikinews waves Left.png((Philipp HagemeisterWikinews waves Right.png)) I saw the takedown notice along with anyone else, on reddit. Since I am no longer involved with the youtube-dl project (except for occasional contributions, my maintainership ended in 2016), I don't know any details.

Wikinews waves Left.png((RSWikinews waves Right.png)) Does YouTube implement DRM for videos not under Creative Commons license, and if so, how does youtube-dl bypass it? Could you please elaborate the procedure?

Wikinews waves Left.png((Philipp HagemeisterWikinews waves Right.png)) YouTube implements DRM for YouTube Movies. youtube-dl does not support those.

YouTube has multiple non-DRM video delivery protocols. I'm not up to date about specifics; my last dabbling in this was in 2015.

One of these protocols is described here. YouTube uses JavaScript to compute parts of the URLs. youtube-dl executes this JavaScript, just like a web browser.

Wikinews waves Left.png((WNWikinews waves Right.png)) Could you also explain in brief how youtube-dl functions, and how the maintainers had intended it to be used?

Wikinews waves Left.png((Philipp HagemeisterWikinews waves Right.png)) youtube-dl downloads and plays videos and music, just like any other web browser, from over 1000 different services. Its uses are varied: It enables video playback on many devices (e.g. Raspberry Pi) where the video services don't work properly, it makes high-quality video playable for people with a bad or no Internet connection, it enables disabled users to use tools to play videos, and it is used for archival and research.

Wikinews waves Left.png((WNWikinews waves Right.png)) What do you think of the DMCA notice?

Wikinews waves Left.png((Philipp HagemeisterWikinews waves Right.png)) I think it is not warranted because youtube-dl is entirely legal. As the DMCA notice has no effect for me personally, I'm not really the right person to address it.

Wikinews waves Left.png((WNWikinews waves Right.png)) Why were the copyrighted tests in the source code? Could they be replaced?

Wikinews waves Left.png((Philipp HagemeisterWikinews waves Right.png)) I'm not sure why, but my guess is that users requested support for these videos and thus they were added as test cases. They can be removed trivially, without losing any function of youtube-dl.

Wikinews waves Left.png((WNWikinews waves Right.png)) Are you aware Electronic Frontier Foundation said it was a "disappointing and counterproductive move"? What do you think should be the next steps?

Wikinews waves Left.png((Philipp HagemeisterWikinews waves Right.png)) Yes, and I concur. I'm no longer involved in the project. If I were, I would probably just remove the test cases, block these music videos (RIAA is not worth the trouble for me, that can be done by other projects), and get the project back online. I understand people who think differently.


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