Copyright Enforcement Robots Took Down The Hugo Awards Live Broadcast

By David Wharton | Updated

This article is more than 2 years old

We like robots. It’s right there in the name. And while we have a proclivity for the giant version, we love robots of all shapes and sizes. But we really, really don’t like the copyright enforcement drones that interrupted the live broadcast of the Hugo Awards Sunday night. Those robots should go suck a stack of magnets.

There’s no denying the unintentional humor of a ceremony celebrating science fiction being shut down by overzealous technology run amok, but I doubt anyone was laughing when the live stream of the Hugos was cut off right as Neil Gaiman took the stage to receive the “Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form” award for his Doctor Who script. Anyone watching the stream, rather than getting to see Neil’s speech — including his revelation that he was writing another Who episode — instead was left staring at the words “Worldcon banned due to copyright infringement.”

As reported by io9, prior to announcing Gaiman as the winner, the ceremony had played clips from the nominated shows. Obviously, those videos are copyrighted. But just as obviously, this is about as clear a case of fair use as anyone could imagine. In fact, the clips being used came from the respective studios holding the copyrights. Unfortunately, that level of nuanced thinking doesn’t register with the copyright bots tasked with making sure some blogger in Des Moines doesn’t upload clips of his favorite shows and thus single-handedly destroy the entertainment industry.

After the incident provoked an irritated Twitstorm from both attendees and people who had been watching online, Ustream CEO Brad Hunstable released a statement via the company’s 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.

While the whole situation is ridiculous, we can understand copyright holders wanting to protect their work. That whole “information wants to be free” thing is great until you’re a content provider and that suddenly means “we want your stuff but don’t want you to be able to pay your mortgage.” But even if well-intentioned, this sort of thing is going to continue happening so long as the solution companies comes up with is to unleash automatic copyright enforcement that is incapable of applying common sense or evaluating context when it comes to deciding what’s fair use and what’s piracy.

Besides, this technology could have been put to much better use, such as erasing all trace of the program Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo.