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SoundCloud combats piracy by giving Universal Music the power to remove uploads (2014)

Summary: Any site that relies on uploaded content has to be wary of hosting pirated content. In most cases, allegedly infringing content is removed at the request of rights holders following the normal DMCA takedown process. A DMCA notice is issued and the site responds by removing the content and -- in some cases -- allowing the uploader to challenge the takedown.

SoundCloud has positioned itself as a host of user-created audio content, relying on content creators to upload original works. But, like any content hosting site, it often found itself hosting infringing content not created by the uploader.

Realizing the potential for SoundCloud to be overrun with infringing content, the platform became far more proactive as it gained users and funding.

Rather than allow the normal DMCA process to work, SoundCloud allowed one major label to set the terms of engagement. This partnership resulted in Universal being able to unilaterally remove content it believed was infringing without any input from SoundCloud or use of the normal DMCA process.

One user reported his account was closed due to alleged infringement contained in his uploaded radio shows. When he attempted to dispute the removals and the threatened shuttering of his account, he was informed by the platform it was completely out of SoundCloud's hands.

Your uploads were removed directly by Universal. This means that SoundCloud had no control over it, and they don't tell us which part of your upload was infringing.

The control of removing content is completely with Universal. This means I can't tell you why they removed your uploads and not others, and you would really need to ask them that question.

Unfortunately, there was no clear appeal process for disputing the takedown, leaving the user without his account or his uploads. A little less than 18 months later, SoundCloud finalized a licensing deal with Universal Music, shortly before the site's subscription service debuted.

Decisions to be made by SoundCloud:

  • Does allowing labels to perform their own takedowns bypass protections SoundCloud should be granting to their users?
  • Are resulting licensing deals more profitable than subscription fees collected from users?
  • Is the risk of litigation too high to allow for a more equitable takedown system?

Questions and policy implications to consider:

  • Will alienating/shedding users via skewed takedown processes result in decreased funding in the future?
  • Do policies like this make SoundCloud an extension of major labels, rather than a platform that caters to independent creators?

Resolution: SoundCloud continues to allow labels like Universal to perform content removals without utilizing the DMCA process or engaging with the platform directly. Users are still on their own when it comes to content declared infringing by labels. This appears to flow directly from SoundCloud's long-running efforts to secure licensing agreements with major labels. And that appears to flow directly from multiple threats of copyright litigation from some of the same labels SoundCloud is now partnered with.
 

Written by The Copia Institute, November 2020

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