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Policing Web video with 'fingerprints'

Can "fingerprinting" bring a truce to the Web's video-copyright wars?

The technology is based on the premise that any video content has unique attributes that allow it to be identified even from a short clip -- just as a human fingerprint identifies a person.

Proponents of fingerprinting technology say it can help spot TV shows and films that are posted on video-sharing sites such as Google Inc.'s (Nasdaq: GOOG)YouTube without their owners' permission, so the sites can remove them or share advertising revenue. That's a significant development amid copyright battles between media and technology companies, including Viacom Inc.'s (NYSE: VIA) $1 billion suit against Google filed in March. But a series of legal, technical and financial issues remain to be solved even as video sites including Google, News Corp.'s (NYSE: NWS) MySpace Video and Microsoft Corp.'s (Nasdaq: MSFT) Soapbox, amid pressure from media companies, are testing fingerprinting or putting it in place.

Google's YouTube every day takes in hundreds of thousands of video clips, from amateur pet videos to clips of commercial movies and TV shows, that are uploaded by consumers. The company has struck deals with some copyright holders, such as the United Kingdom's British Broadcasting Corp., to run their videos and share some ad revenue. And it says it will remove any content that is posted without the copyright holders' permission when it receives specific complaints. But Google has said it needs media companies' involvement because on its own it can't distinguish between video that the copyright holders want posted and material posted without the owners' permission.

That's because Google doesn't know if the user uploading the video truly holds the copyright to a work or if the description the individual provides of the material is accurate. Some consumers, for example, spell the names of TV shows backward in the titles of pirated clips they upload in order to thwart detection by media companies. Fingerprinting technology, by analyzing the audio or video tracks of a clip, could alert YouTube to the presence of material that a media company has registered as its own -- regardless of who uploads it or what they title the clip.

General Electric Co.'s (NYSE: GE NBC-Universal says it plans to participate in a test of fingerprinting on YouTube that it expects to start shortly. Technical staffs from the two companies are working together and they hope to have results by this summer, according to NBC.

People familiar with the matter say that Google is using fingerprinting technology from closely held Audible Magic Corp. of Los Gatos, Calif., as it separately pursues an internal effort to build its own. NBC was chosen for a Google test, which NBC expects to take place from April through June, partly because it understands the difficulties of such technology, according to one person familiar with the matter.

A YouTube spokeswoman said it looked forward to working with a variety of content owners on "content management technology," but declined to comment on the specifics of any tests, timing or technology being used. YouTube announced last fall it planned to introduce content-identification technology by the end of 2006 as part of partnerships with CBS Corp. (NYSE: CBS) and others. Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt later said fingerprinting technology was an answer to copyright concerns, but that it was difficult, which prompted some media companies to complain Google was dragging its heels.

NBC has been agitating for Google to move faster to put a fingerprinting system in place, contending in recent months that the Internet giant hasn't made battling piracy a priority. Now that Google is starting a test, the media company has for the moment tabled any plans to join Viacom in pursuing legal options. "We see progress," said NBC General Counsel Rick Cotton in an interview. CBS says it is also having "constructive conversations" with YouTube about fingerprinting.

Cotton and other media executives believe the fingerprinting pendulum has started to swing in their direction. In particular, they cite the piracy-protection component of a new NBC Universal-News Corp. joint venture to distribute TV shows and movies on the Web. In return for allowing viewers to watch their programming on Time Warner Inc.'s (NYSE: TWX) AOL, Microsoft, MySpace and Yahoo, the two big media companies got the Internet firms to agree to proactively screen for pirated video. "That removes entirely the notion that this is so technically difficult that it can't be done on a large scale," says Cotton.

AOL says it isn't using fingerprinting technology, but is willing to do so once a standard emerges. Yahoo isn't currently, and declined to comment on any future plans.

At the same time, some media executives say Google's plans don't go far enough, because Google has said it won't use fingerprinting to block clips from being placed on the site, something known as "filtering." Instead, Google is expected to use fingerprinting to flag pirated clips to the content owners, which then have to request they be removed. "It sounds like some kind of crazy lost and found," a senior executive at one of the big media companies says. "It's not going to be enough," says another.

Lawyers for the media companies say that Google finds itself in a conundrum: It wants to appease the content owners it views as important partners for YouTube but is concerned that filtering might increase its liability for copyright infringement claims. The YouTube spokeswoman said, "The law is clear, copyright owners have the responsibility to identify infringing material they want removed," adding that YouTube will continue to exceed its own responsibilities under the law while letting people upload video easily and quickly to the site.

Video-sharing sites such as YouTube say they are protected from liability for copyright claims under "safe harbor" provisions in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. But, under the DMCA, sites that have "actual knowledge" or control of infringing content can lose such protections. "What these filters do is potentially create more knowledge, more awareness of what's going on," says Fred von Lohmann, senior intellectual-property attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. "There is some residual risk that you could lose the safe-harbor protections if you have too much of that kind of knowledge."

Von Lohmann said Google's expected approach of flagging content for owners to review and request removal is a plausible middle ground. Some fingerprinting companies such as Audible Magic say their role as an independent third party could also resolve sites' concerns about having knowledge of piracy that could endanger their protection from liability. Microsoft, for one, says it is using fingerprinting technology from Audible Magic to proactively block clips from being posted to its Soapbox video-sharing site without permission and also providing content owners with tools to request removal of clips that slip through.

With Audible Magic's system, media companies provide copies of their music, TV shows and films that it analyzes, adding their fingerprints to a central database. Video-sharing sites can use Audible Magic software to extract fingerprints for clips that users upload, and then look in Audible Magic's database for a match. Other fingerprinting systems work similarly.

Some sites have raised questions about the efficacy of current filtering technology, particularly when it's used on a mass scale and applied to the clips of varying length and quality users upload. A person familiar with the expected NBC-Google test says the Audible-Magic-based technology being used is imperfect and could frustrate media companies when clips slip through.

The Motion Picture Association of America, a proponent of fingerprinting, has been testing technology from 12 organizations. "One of the things we've been impressed with is it actually works," says Dean Garfield, chief strategic officer at the MPAA, the Hollywood lobbying group.

Audible Magic Chief Executive Vance Ikezoye says his company's fingerprinting technology, whose users include MySpace Video, Sony Corp.'s (NYSE: SNE) Grouper, Break.com and GoFish Corp., is more than 99 percent accurate when it's used to examine a clip where the image and audio quality aren't degraded. Audible Magic's fingerprinting, originally designed for use with music, looks primarily at the audio tracks and requires a TV or film clip to be about 20 to 30 seconds long minimum to reliably analyze it. The company says it is testing technology that also examines the video component of the clips.

Audible Magic charges sites a monthly fee for its service, which it says can add up to about $1 million annually in some cases. But it and other fingerprinting companies say the business models for their services aren't totally worked out. Yangbin Wang, chief executive of Vobile Inc., a closely held Santa Clara, Calif., video-fingerprinting startup, says the video-sharing sites that pay to use the technology aren't always motivated to fork over premium fees for the best services. Wang believes the issue could be resolved when fingerprinting is used as part of licensing pacts where video sites and content owners share ad revenue on clips they identify.

Even fingerprinting proponents, however, acknowledge it's not a silver bullet to media companies' copyright headaches. For starters, users could find pirated videos on sites without it. "I suspect people will try to find -- and will find -- a workaround," says the MPAA's Garfield.

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