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Broadcaster Ustream shut down the official broadcast of science-fiction’s most prestigious award show due to automated copyright-infringement software.
The most prestigious event within the science fiction and fantasy community, the Hugos are held annually at WorldCon, a rotating conference hosted this year by Chicago’s Chicon. Of all the awards within the sci-fi/fantasy community, only the Nebulas receive an equal amount of attention.
Yet this year’s Hugo awards ceremony set the stage for an unprecedented—and some might argue, dystopian—clash that had nothing to do with creative giants in the fields of science fiction literature and media. Instead, the audience found themselves witnessing a casualty in the ongoing battle between copyright holders and defenders of fair use.
During the middle of Neil Gaiman’s acceptance speech for his much-predicted win as author of acclaimed Doctor Who episode “The Doctor’s Wife,” the Hugo Awards’ livestream was suspended by broadcasting service Ustream due to “copyright infringement.”
The bot sensors went off around the time Gaiman accepted his award, triggered by the TV clips used to preview the nominated episodes (which also included an episode of NBC’s Community). The broadcast was cut short, even though UStream was aware of the issue.
UStream CEO and company founder Brad Hunstable issued an apology for making viewers “unhappy,” and implied that the Hugo Awards themselves are partially to blame, stating that users who “notify UStream in advance” that they have permission to use copyright will be automatically whitelisted.
Ustream’s promise to “recalibrate the settings” of its third-party copyright infringement sniffer, Vobile, implies that a mistake was made in the software itself; but currently, without science-fiction levels of sentience, there simply is no way for an automated copyright-infringement system to detect every instance of fair use.
A later clarification acknowledges that this “process” is “inadequate,” but UStream hasn’t responded to criticism that its choice to use Vobile’s automated software could be the root of the problem, or addressed the possibility that automated copyright detection cannot adequately address fair use of copyrighted material.
Glenn Hauman, who selected the clips to run in the awards ceremony, points out that there was no convenient software malfunction to blame, that “this service worked almost exactly as UStream intended it to.” The issue seems to be, ultimately, about good faith in dealing with questions of copyright. A 2007 District Court of California ruling upheld the idea that corporations must practice good faith in determining whether content on the Internet is fair use before issuing a DMCA takedown notice or removing said content.
Hauman also notes that UStream has disabled commenting on its apology post, which is perhaps not the the best way to advocate for a censorship-free Internet.
Ironically, ComicMix’s attempt to host the clips Hauman compiled was also taken down by YouTube due to an automatic copyright infringement claim from the BBC.
Aja Romano is a geek culture reporter and fandom expert. Their reporting at the Daily Dot covered everything from Harry Potter and anime to Tumblr and Gamergate. Romano joined Vox as a staff reporter in 2016.