There are a number of sites and services that will let you easily convert a streaming YouTube video into a more usable file. YouTube itself has gone after some of these sites, but now the recording industry is challenging the legality of a popular site that allows users to rip audio-only MP3 files from YouTube clips.
As you’re probably aware, there are seemingly countless YouTube “videos” that are nothing more than a musical recording with an accompanying still picture, or maybe the song’s lyrics. If copyright bots working for record studios and music publishers identify these videos, they may allow them to remain online in return for revenue from advertising run alongside these clips.
But if those videos are ripped into MP3s without any copy protection, they can be used offline on virtually any device by anyone, with the rights-holder not able to earn any money. The question is whether or not the service that allows you to convert the video’s audio into an MP3 is violating copyright.
According to a complaint [PDF] filed this week in a federal court in California by a coalition of recording industry biggies — including Warner Bros., Capitol Records, Atlantic, Sony, Elektra, and Universal Music Group — the answer is yes.
They claim that the site YouTube-mp3.org (YTMP3) is “designed to infringe and facilitate the infringement of Plaintiffs’ copyrighted sound recordings that are available on YouTube. YTMP3 rapidly and seamlessly removes the audio tracks contained in videos streamed from YouTube that YTMP3’s users access (these audio tracks consist largely of sound recordings owned by Plaintiffs), converts those audio tracks to an MP3 format, copies and stores them on YTMP3’s servers, and then distributes copies of the MP3 audio files from its servers to its users in the United States, enabling its users to download those MP3 files to their computers, tablets, or smart phones.”
According to the lawsuit, the practice of ripping streams into MP3s is a growing problem for the recording industry, with unauthorized rips increasing by 50% from 2013 through 2015.
The complaint alleges that YTMP3 directly infringes on the plaintiffs’ copyrights, and materially contributes to copyright infringement by its users — all while profiting from the purported piracy (the site doesn’t charge a fee, but does appear to earn revenue from advertising).
“The scale of Defendants’ infringing activity is enormous,” claims the lawsuit, which contends that YTMP3 is “one of the most visited sites in the world” and that the site is responsible for around 40% of all MP3s ripped from YouTube without authorization.
An exhibit [PDF] filed with the complaint lists more than 300 songs that have allegedly been ripped without authorization using YTMP3.
Some stream-recording services like PlayOn have, so far, avoided legal action by operating in much the same way a VCR worked. You play a YouTube or Netflix video in real time and — rather than downloading the source file — it records the feed locally on your computer. Those services argue that they are protected by the Supreme Court’s 1984 “Betamax ruling,” which held that making your own videotaped copy of a TV broadcast for your personal, non-commercial use is not copyright infringement.
However, the YTMP3 complaint appears to be trying to preempt such an argument by noting that the site strips the YouTube clip of video and — as YTMP3 explains on its homepage — “the whole conversion process will be perfomed [sic] by our infrastructure and you only have to download the audio file from our servers.”
The lawsuit also alleges that YTMP3 makes and stores copies of the ripped files on its servers for further distribution to other users.
In that way, say the plaintiffs, YTMP3 is not just a tool that could be used for infringement, but an active participant in the distribution of infringing files.
The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction against Germany-based YTMP3 to stop it from offering the stream-ripping service. Additionally, they are seeking monetary damages — to the tune of $150,000 per infringement — that would likely be far beyond what YTMP3 could ever possibly pay.
In addition to the U.S. lawsuit, the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) has put YTMP3 on formal notice of possible legal action if it doesn’t cease operation.
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is not a plaintiff in the California lawsuit, but has expressed its full support of the claim.
“This site is raking in millions on the backs of artists, songwriters and labels,” says RIAA CEO Cary Sherman in a statement. “It should not be so easy to engage in this activity in the first place, and no stream ripping site should appear at the top of any search result or app chart.”