Recent action by Universal Music against journalists from a popular technology podcast network hints at what the Internet might look like under SOPA/PIPA if the Motion Picture Association of America gets its way in Congress.

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“Tech News Today,” a daily video and audio podcast produced by the TWiT.TV network, had a recent edition pulled from YouTube over copyright claims made by Universal Music Group. Journalists on Tech News Today were reporting on Universal’s recent action to remove a video posted by Megaupload, a Hong Kong-based file sharing service.

YouTube, owned by Google, provides large music labels with the ability to identify infringing content in videos uploaded by users, and then to have those videos automatically removed without YouTube’s intervention. The label can choose to leave the video up and insert advertising into the infringing content (the revenue is shared between the label and YouTube), or they can remove the video entirely. YouTube does allow the user/uploader to appeal an automated identification, at which point the label needs to follow the formal process as outlined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

Megaupload provides 200 gigabytes of free storage space that is often used to distribute content illegally. The site charges 10 euros per month for premium services that allow for unlimited storage and high speed data transfers. Non-premium users cannot download more than a gigabyte at a time. It certainly would qualify as one of the “rogue” websites the MPAA and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) are attempting to stop through federal legislation. 

Megaupload, in a “gift” to its “mega users,” posted the video with a number of top music stars, including Will-I-Am, P Diddy, Chris Brown, Kanye West, and others endorsing the service.  Shortly after it was posted to YouTube, Universal Music initiated an automatic takedown on copyright grounds. Megaupload claims it has signed releases from all of the celebrities in its video, although Will-I-Am filed his own DMCA request saying he didn’t authorize his appearance.

On Dec. 12, Tech News Today covered the takedown story on the show, with the Megaupload video running on-screen as Tom Merritt and his co-hosts discussed the issue. The following day an automated takedown order came from YouTube and the Dec. 12 edition of Tech News Today was removed from YouTube.

Merritt filed an appeal and YouTube reinstated the video. Universal Music then went a step further, filling a formal DMCA takedown request, at which point YouTube again removed the Tech News Today video. 

“Tech News Today has a very clear fair use to show that video. We were commenting and criticising, that is part of the fair use provision,” Merritt said on the Dec. 13 edition of the show, “In effect, Universal Music Group, through YouTube, gets to censor yesterday’s Tech News Today.”

TWiT, short for “This Week in Tech,” was started by veteran technology broadcaster Leo Laporte in 2005. Laporte was a popular host on the now defunct cable network TechTV, who later began recording weekly technology discussions with his former TechTV co-workers.  Laporte’s audience grew rapidly and TWiT now produces a number of technology shows in its new, 10,000-square-foot studio in Petaluma, Calif. According to Laporte, TWiT’s annual revenue is several million dollars a year. 

Late last week Google reinstated both videos, as it decided that Universal’s claims of copyright infringement were not justified in this case.

“Our partners do not have the right to take down videos from YT unless they own the rights to them or they are live performances controlled through exclusive agreements with their artists, which is why we reinstated it,” Google told in a statement. 

For TWiT, the reinstatement of the episode in question might be too little too late. Its revenue is derived from the number of views or listens each show receives. The news shows it produces are timely, so a majority of their traffic comes within a day or two of each new edition’s posting. The show also was hosted on TWiT’s own servers, which did not receive a take down notice from Universal. 

Under the proposed SOPA and PIPA bills, TWiT would essentially lose its right to due process through the federal court system in these cases. Universal could force the entire TWiT.TV domain to be de-listed from Internet servers in the U.S., and also cut their revenue flow from payment processors and their ad networks without a single court order. A competing bill, called the OPEN Act, would provide more protections for content creators like the TWiT network. 

Debate on the bills will continue this week in Congress.