Why Taylor Swift and the Music Industry’s New Attack on YouTube Is a Mistake

June 20, 2016, 2:23 PM UTC
iHeartRadio Music Awards - Show
INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 03: Recording artist Taylor Swift accepts the award for 'Album of the Year,' for '1989,' onstage at the iHeartRadio Music Awards which broadcasted live on TBS, TNT, AND TRUTV from The Forum on April 3, 2016 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for iHeartRadio / Turner)
Photograph by Rich Polk — Getty Images for iHeartRadio / Turner

The biggest names in music, including Taylor Swift and Paul McCartney, are pulling out all the stops with a public letter to Congress and a week long ad campaign in Washington, D.C. media.

What’s the cause? The letter and ads go public to Tuesday, but reports about the campaign make pretty clear the target is online music platforms—YouTube in particular.

As Recode reports, the music industry is enlisting its biggest stars, such as Swift and U2, to press the case that copyright law is rigged in favor of Google-owned YouTube (GOOG) and that it must be changed to give artists more money and control. Here is what the ad will say, according to Billboard:

“[The law] has allowed major tech companies to grow and generate huge profits by creating ease of use for consumers to carry almost every recorded song in history in their pocket via a smartphone, while songwriters’ and artists’ earnings continue to diminish.”

The ad campaign will reportedly also press Congress to use an ongoing review of copyright law to tilt the rules to be more in favor of musicians.

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This spectacle of Swift and other A-listers pleading for “reform” will no doubt make an impression on the country’s lawmakers. But that doesn’t mean they should listen. What the music industry is doing is making mischief with an important law in order to put business pressure on YouTube.

The law, as many people are aware, is called the DMCA (the “Digital Millennium Copyright Act,”) and it serves to protect websites like YouTube and Facebook from getting sued when someone uploads a song or video without permission. According to music industry types, YouTube exploits the law to turn a blind eye to piracy and get rich in the process. That’s why, they argue we need “DMCA reform” to put a stop to this.

It’s a compelling argument. But it’s just not true.

Far from being a platform for piracy, YouTube offers sophisticated tools that not only allow the music industry to zap unauthorized videos but, if they choose, to insert ads to make money off them instead.

While YouTube and sites like it certainly did attract users by playing fast and loose with copyright, that was years ago, and there’s no evidence they’re doing so today. Swift and her friends can argue YouTube should pay more money to artists, and no doubt some will agree. But that’s a business issue, not a legal one.

To see what happened at Vevo when Taylor Swift pulled her music from Spotify, watch:

Meanwhile, their call call to enact “DMCA reform” is a dangerous one since the law, which has been in place for more than 20 years, has been crucial to building the U.S. Internet economy. Without it, sites like Snapchat, Facebook (FB), or Twitter (TWTR) would never have gotten off the ground in the first place.

Even if Congress does tear up the DMCA, it’s unlikely the result would be more money for artists. Instead, it would mean a morass of lawsuits and licensing fees, and more consumers turning to oversees piracy sites.

The bottom line is that the music industry is still coming to terms with how to make up for the loss of CD sales, which provided labels with enormous profit margins they have been unable to reproduce in the digital era. That’s a problem for the industry, but not one that will be solved by misguided attacks on YouTube and the DMCA.