By Kirk Petersen

So you don’t have much experience with live-streaming, but you’re working hard to get it right before Easter to help your congregation or diocese worship together virtually on the holiest day of the year.

You’ve tested your equipment, and maybe you invested in a tripod or an external microphone for your smartphone. You’ve checked out the sight lines, and put marks on the floor to help your small altar party remain six feet apart. Or maybe you’re using Zoom to pull together feeds from multiple living rooms, for broadcast on YouTube Live.

Easter Sunday comes, Christ arises, your service begins, and a gratifying number of your parishioners are tuning in. But midway through the sermon, the service disappears and is replaced by a message: “This video has been removed for violating YouTube’s Terms of Service.”

That’s what happened on Palm Sunday to the Episcopal Church of St. Peter & St. Paul in Marietta, Georgia. “We had over 225 views at the time,” the rector, the Rev. Tom Pumphrey, told TLC. “It took us a while to get back streaming again, and we sent out another email to the parish saying we were back up and running, but we only got up to around 75 views for the remainder of the service.”

At the time of the interruption, Associate Rector Elissa Harres was a few minutes into her sermon, recounting some of the events of the first Holy Week. When they realized they had been knocked off the air, the church started a new live stream, then Pumphrey filled time for 17 minutes while waiting for parishioners to regather. Harres then restarted her sermon from the top.

Why was the live stream taken down?

YouTube provided no further information on Sunday to the church about the removal. TLC asked YouTube for an explanation for this article, and within a day, Nicole Bell of Google (which owns YouTube) replied in part:

We reviewed the details of the live stream you provided and it was removed in error. This was not the result of a Content ID claim, in fact the removal had nothing to do with copyright, but rather was a classification error made by our automated systems.

Ironically, the very factor that is driving hordes of churches toward live-streaming is also making it more likely that YouTube will take down content by mistake. In a remarkably candid video on the YouTube Creators channel, “Matt from YouTube” explains how the coronavirus is affecting YouTube’s operations:

Since more of our reviewers need to stay home right now for their health and safety, we’re going to have to depend more on automated systems. This means creators might see a temporary increase in video removals, unfortunately including some that may not violate any policies.

Bell also pointed to a post on Google’s blog with a similar explanation.

Bell’s response, although admirably prompt considering YouTube’s massive collection of videos, came too late to stave off lively online and email discussions about this and other interrupted live streams among church members, and among members of a private listserv for Episcopal communications professionals.

Through those discussions, along with several hours of web research, it became clear that when YouTube takes down a video in normal times, by far the most common reason is allegations of musical copyright infringement.

The two hymns that St. Peter & St. Paul music director George Chestnut performed and sang from his piano at home on Palm Sunday are in the public domain, according to their listing in the 1982 Hymnal. (Hymn 154, All Glory, Laud, and Honor, and Hymn 160, Cross of Jesus, Cross of Sorrow, if you’re curious.)

But even when a video creator is using public domain music, or has legitimate rights to the music, YouTube videos sometimes get taken down, in part because the law on musical copyrights is designed to give the benefit of the doubt to any claim of infringement. The law was developed after the internet destroyed the traditional album-based business model of the music industry.

How does YouTube’s system work in normal times?

YouTube has two processes for enforcing copyright claims: copyright takedown requests and the company’s proprietary Content ID system.

Copyright takedowns are initiated by copyright holders via a handy form on YouTube’s website. A YouTube employee reviews the takedown notice, rejects any obviously fraudulent claims, then takes down the video and issues a “copyright strike” against the account that posted the video. After three such strikes, an account is subject to permanent closure, although each strike can be appealed.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the legislation behind the process was designed to safeguard YouTube and other such platforms:

As part of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA), Congress granted online service providers (like YouTube) certain protections from copyright infringement liability, so long as they meet certain requirements. One requirement of this “DMCA safe harbor” is that online service providers must implement a “notice-and-takedown” system. Another requirement is that YouTube must cancel the accounts of “repeat infringers.”

A member of the Episcopal Communicators’ listserv pointed out that YouTube has been plagued by “copyright trolls” — people who make fraudulent claims of ownership for the purpose of vandalism or of trying to extort money from account holders who want to avoid a third strike. YouTube filed suit last year against a particularly egregious copyright troll, and won a $25,000 settlement.

But because a copyright takedown requires action by two human beings — filing a notice, plus review by a YouTube employee — it’s hard to believe that could happen while a live stream is in process. The company says creators upload 500 hours of new content every minute.

The Content ID system, however, is an automated “bot,” and apparently operates in real time. YouTube’s description of the process says “Sometimes, we may terminate your live broadcast.” Content ID has a massive database of “digital fingerprints” of audio and visual files submitted by content owners. The system “scans videos on YouTube against these fingerprints to see if there is a match.”

The company says that Content ID “can recognize audio, video and even melodies when they’ve been covered or imitated.” If you’ve ever been misunderstood when giving simple commands to Alexa or Siri, you may suspect that Content ID’s recognition is necessarily imperfect.

Pumphrey said the Palm Sunday video was later restored to the church’s YouTube channel, “but the damage has already been done — the stream was shut down and folks walked away.” The restoration occurred without any request or intervention from the church.

What can churches do to prevent a problem?

So, how can you protect against interruption of your church’s live stream? Anecdotal evidence from the Episcopal Communicators listserv about other live-stream interruptions indicates that there is no magic bullet. And as Bell pointed out, mistakes can happen.

Someone suggested posting a notice with the live-stream notes that the music is in the public domain, or that the church has licensed the right to use the music via a service like Rite Series or OneLicense. But that won’t protect against an automated system, which will not read and adjudicate disclaimers before taking action.

Also, while Rite Series and OneLicense make it easy for churches to obtain rights to sheet music at an affordable price for congregational use, a live stream is considered a public performance and is not covered by the basic licenses. OneLicense has a podcast/streaming rider that can be purchased at an additional cost. And again, the bot doesn’t care.

Facebook Live is an alternative to YouTube Live, but Facebook has its own automated system, and users have reported similar problems with live-stream interruption. Many people who use the Vimeo service speak highly of it — but while users can post a limited amount of archival content for free, support for live-streaming requires a plan costing $75 per month.

Someone suggested that the safest way to dodge the bot was to live-stream without music. “I’m trying to wrap my head around not singing at Easter!” Pumphrey said. Indeed, merely saying “alleluia” just doesn’t have the same impact as singing the joyous 14th-century hymn that begins: “Jesus Christ is risen today! Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-le-ee-lu-u-ia.”

Bell said that YouTube has “been working over the past few weeks with faith organizations across the world to help them transition to supporting and connecting their congregations remotely, and just today we shared information about how Google tools can be used by faith organizations, along with some of the specific tools and projects that are taking place on YouTube for Passover and Easter.”

Still, there clearly are multiple ways mistakes can happen, and an explanation after the fact may be cold comfort, especially for an Easter live stream. One gambit suggested by the experience of St. Peter & St. Paul is to tell your parish in advance that live streams sometimes get interrupted, and if that happens a new live stream will be started promptly. That might shave a few minutes off the recovery time.

There is, of course, one remaining option for protecting your church’s live stream.

Pray.

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