Last night, robots shut down the live broadcast of one of science fiction's most prestigious award ceremonies. No, you're not reading a science fiction story. In the middle of the annual Hugo Awards event at Worldcon, which thousands of people tuned into via video streaming service Ustream, the feed cut off — just as Neil Gaiman was giving an acceptance speech for his Doctor Who script, "The Doctor's Wife." Where Gaiman's face had been were the words, "Worldcon banned due to copyright infringement." What the hell?
Jumping onto Twitter, people who had been watching the livestream began asking what was going on. How could an award ceremony have anything to do with copyright infringement?
Bestselling science fiction author Tobias Buckell tweeted:
And then it began to dawn on people what happened. Gaiman had just gotten an award for his Doctor Who script. Before he took the stage, the Hugo Awards showed clips from his winning episode, along with clips from some other Doctor Who episodes that had been nominated, as well as a Community episode.
Wrote Macworld editorial director Jason Snell:
This was, of course, absurd. First of all, the clips had been provided by the studios to be shown during the award ceremony. The Hugo Awards had explicit permission to broadcast them. But even if they hadn't, it is absolutely fair use to broadcast clips of copyrighted material during an award ceremony. Unfortunately, the digital restriction management (DRM) robots on Ustream had not been programmed with these basic contours of copyright law.
And then, it got worse. Amid more cries of dismay on Twitter, Reddit, and elsewhere, the official Worldcon Twitter announced:
And with that, the broadcast was officially cut off. Dumb robots, programmed to kill any broadcast containing copyrighted material, had destroyed the only live broadcast of the Hugo Awards. Sure, we could read what was happening on Twitter, or get the official winner announcement on the Hugo website, but that is hardly the same. We wanted to see our heroes and friends on that stage, and share the event with them. In the world of science fiction writing, the Hugo Awards are kind of like the Academy Awards. Careers are made; people get dressed up and give speeches; and celebrities rub shoulders with (admittedly geeky) paparazzi. You want to see and hear it if you can.
But Ustream's incorrectly programmed copyright enforcement squad had destroyed our only access. It was like a Cory Doctorow story crossed with RoboCop 2, with DRM robots going crazy and shooting indiscriminately into a crowd of perfectly innocent broadcasts.
And who did we have recourse to? We couldn't file a legal complaint in time to see io9's Charlie Jane Anders accept the Hugo for best novelette. And Ustream was completely unresponsive. As of today, September 3, people who posted queries on UStream's site have yet to be answered.
The point is, our ability to broadcast was entirely dependent on poorly-programmed bots. And once those bots had made their incorrect decision, there was absolutely nothing we could do to restart the signal, as it were. In case anyone still believes that copyright rules can't stop free speech or snuff out a community, the automated censorship of the Hugo Awards is a case in point.
Robots killed our legitimate broadcast. Welcome to the present.
Ustream's CEO Brad Hunstable has finally made a public apology about the incident, but his explanation is quite odd. The good news is that Ustream will no longer be using Vobile, a third-party service that does automated infringement takedowns. The odd part is that apparently Ustream couldn't restart its own live feed once Vobile had shut it down. At least, that's what Hunstable claims.
Hunstable writes on the Ustream blog:
Very unfortunately at 7:43 p.m. Pacific time, the channel was automatically banned in the middle of an acceptance speech by author Neil Gaiman due to "copyright infringement." This occurred because our 3rd party automated infringement system, Vobile, detected content in the stream that it deemed to be copyrighted. Vobile is a system that rights holders upload their content for review on many video sites around the web. The video clips shown prior to Neil's speech automatically triggered the 3rd party system at the behest of the copyright holder.
Our editorial team and content monitors almost immediately noticed a flood of livid Twitter messages about the ban and attempted to restore the broadcast. Unfortunately, we were not able to lift the ban before the broadcast ended. We had many unhappy viewers as a result, and for that I am truly sorry.
As background, our system works like this in order to support a large volume of broadcasters using our free platform. Users of our paid, ad-free Pro Broadcasting service are automatically white listed to avoid situations like this and receive hands-on client support.
I have suspended use of this third-party system until we are able to recalibrate the settings so that we can better balance the needs of broadcasters, viewers, and copyright holders. While we are committed to protecting copyright, we absolutely must ensure our amazing and democratizing platform allows legal broadcasters to Ustream their events and shows. This is our first and foremost obligation to our users and community.
I applaud Ustream for discarding Vobile, but remain puzzled about why the company couldn't control its own technology and restart the feed as soon as they realized the mistake.
This keeps getting curiouser and curiouser. Vobile CEO Yangbin Wang told Gigaom:
Vobile was shocked when it learned of the Hugo Award incident for the first time in the media, as no contact was made by Ustream through Vobile's 24/7 customer support, or through any other direct channel, at any point during or after the webcast. Vobile technology was not at the root of the problem. Our content identification system provides customers with accurate information. Each customer must decide for itself what it does with that information.
So basically it sounds like Ustream had set up its own automated system to take down the feeds of non-paying customers if they streamed anything that triggered Vobile's "content identification system." And Ustream was either unable or unwilling to turn the Worldcon stream back on when they realized what was going on.