DRM bot shuts down sci-fi awards broadcast

An awards ceremony streamed over the weekend by Ustream abruptly went black because a digital rights management tool used by the company reckoned copyright was being infringed and automatically shut it down.

Ustream was showing the annual Hugo Awards – science fiction’s highest accolade – when an acceptance speech by Neil Gaiman was cut off in the middle. Viewers were instead shown a message reading:  “Worldcon banned due to copyright infringement”.

The problem was that – as is usual with awards ceremonies – clips of nominated TV programs were shown before the result was announced. Ustream’s third-party software, Vobile, recognized that copyrighted content was being streamed and decided to put a stop to it.

Brad Hunstable, CEO and founder of Ustream, has apologized to viewers. “I have suspended use of this third-party system until we are able to recalibrate the settings so that we can better balance the needs of broadcasters, viewers, and copyright holders,” he says.

Science fiction fans, though, are an unforgiving bunch.

“Well, it’s lovely that you are sorry about your colossal screwup. You pretty much just pissed on the parade ground in front of the commanding general,” says one.

“You used an overly aggressive content screening service, and you allowed this overly aggressive system that you don’t have control over to automatically take down feeds. You failed to delegate authority down to the people who were on duty in your control center to fix the situation in a timely fashion.”

Something similar happened earlier this month when Scripps Local News Service blocked NASA’s historic Mars landing broadcast for more than an hour. In that case, it appears that YouTube’s Content ID system was being over-zealous, detecting a duplication.

In the case of the Ustream broadcast, the offending clips were presumably provided by the right holders themselves, making the black-out all the more outrageous. The block also implies, though, that tools such as Voible are unable to distinguish between breach of copyright and fair use.

Hunstable claims that, once the broadcast had been halted, it was technically impossible for Ustream to reinstate it. If this is true – and many of the awards ceremony’s viewers say they doubt it – it means that content providers can be judged and punished by a bot, without any way of challenging its decision.