GitHub reinstates YouTube-dl video downloader after RIAA complaint
November 17, 2020
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GitHub has reinstated an open-source tool for downloading YouTube videos, and it’s changed its policies to make similar copyright-related takedowns less likely. Yesterday, the Microsoft-owned software repository reversed its removal of YouTube-dl, which lets users save local copies of streaming videos from YouTube and many other sites.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) demanded that GitHub remove YouTube-dl in late October. It alleged that the tool “was designed and is marketed” for illegally saving copyrighted music, violating Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. GitHub initially agreed, but its decision drew criticism from journalists and software developers. As TechDirt chronicled, YouTube-dl is valuable for reporters documenting content that might be flagged for removal, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation says that it’s valuable for educators and people whose internet connections aren’t stable enough to stream video.

GitHub found these arguments compelling. “Although we did initially take the project down, we understand that just because code can be used to access copyrighted works doesn’t mean it can’t also be used to access works in non-infringing ways,” writes platform policy director Abby Vollmer. Vollmer notes that YouTube-dl’s developers also patched their software to remove references to copyrighted works. “When we see it is possible to modify a project to remove allegedly infringing content, we give the owners a chance to fix problems before we take content down.”

GitHub is legally bound to follow Section 1201, which bans tools meant to circumvent copy protections. But there are also several legal exceptions to Section 1201, including breaking copy protection for educational use and accessibility purposes. And following the incident with YouTube-dl, GitHub is formalizing a policy to evaluate complaints. “Every single credible 1201 takedown claim will be reviewed by technical experts” and legal experts, writes Vollmer. It’s also establishing and donating $1 million to a developer defense fund for open-source developers who want to challenge complaints.

But Vollmer encouraged changes to Section 1201 itself — a move supported by many copyright reform advocates. “No matter what we do to protect developer rights, we still must work within the boundaries of the law,” she writes.

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