White Noise Receives 5 Copyright Infringement Claims on YouTube

An artist who posted a 10 hour video with nothing but white noise on YouTube has received 5 copyright infringement notices.

White noise is a very useful tool in music production. Add filters, attacks, and decays, and you can turn it into a whole lot of different sounds. This includes simulated wind and adding to a percussion hit. Essentially, all it is is a random signal that has equal density for all frequencies.

If you are into music production, there is a wide variety of different oscillators that can generate white noise. Just set the oscillator to white noise and hit a key and you’ll generate white noise. So, for any artist with minimal skill, producing white noise for any length of time is a very trivial task.

Wikipedia points out that the use of white noise extends far beyond music production. This includes use in mathematics, radio, and is even used in health treatments.

That’s, in large part, what makes this story so peculiar. According to the BBC, an artist by the name of Sebastian Tomczak posted 10 hours of white noise on YouTube. Through Google’s Content ID system, 5 different claimants say that they own the rights to white noise. As such, they want the revenue generated by the video in question. From the report:

“I will be disputing these claims,” he told the BBC.

“I am intrigued and perplexed that YouTube’s automated content ID system will pattern-match white noise with multiple claims,” he said.

His video was originally made along with other 10-hour recordings – including one of a continuous electronic tone.

Mr Tomczak said the “spurious” claims won’t have a significant impact on him, though he finds them “frustrating”.

“If I were making substantial money from YouTube content, such a broken system may prove to be unusable,” he said.

From a copyright standpoint, it’s hard to imagine white noise as anything other than something that is in the public domain. Does someone have the rights to a sine wave? What about a saw tooth? Ultimately, both are little more than a mathematical equation represented on a graph. The same can be said for white noise. After researching this, we weren’t able to conclude that anyone actually holds any kind of copyright over the concept of white noise.

Assuming that white noise is actually in the public domain, there is something to consider in the realm of copyright. It is possible to make a recording of something like white noise and say the recording is copyrighted. However, that doesn’t mean that white noise is copyrighted, only that specific recording. If someone else records something in the public domain and commits that recording to the public domain, then that recording is in the public domain.

In a similar manner, facts can’t be copyrighted. 1 + 1 = 2 is a mathematical fact. Someone can publish this fact in a book and say the book is copyrighted. However, that doesn’t mean that the person has copyright over the fact that 1 + 1 = 2. As such, it would be legally problematic to say that the person can prohibit other publishers from publishing other books that says 1 + 1 = 2.

So, if this was actually a copyright case, it’s hard to imagine a successful case where someone records white noise and forbids other people from using white noise in recording especially when it is a separate recording.

Of course, this isn’t actually a copyright case, but rather, a Content ID case. This falls back on Google’s shoulders because Content ID does not recognize copyright exceptions such as Fair Use. If one were to use a 5 second clip from a movie and offered a 15 minute educational critique, that is a very strong case that this is Fair Use. In fact, many countries offer educational purposes as an exception for copyright laws. However, Content ID may not recognize this and may ultimately demonetize the video anyway because it is an imperfect automated system.

Google’s Content ID has long been the focus of criticism because it lacks any practical ability to recognize Fair Use. As such, it requires human intervention. So, whether or not the video actually broke any copyright laws is meaningless thanks to the Content ID system in place. As such, the content ID system isn’t going to win over very many new critics thanks to what we see here.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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