How Google did the right thing with the NASCAR crash video, and why it matters

At a NASCAR event on Saturday, debris created by a serious crash flew into the stands and injured a number of fans. As with many such events, a bystander caught the disaster on video and quickly uploaded it to YouTube, but within a matter minutes it was removed due to a copyright claim by NASCAR. It seemed like yet another case of a commercial entity taking advantage of copyright law to smother free speech — until Google reinstated the video and said NASCAR had overstepped its bounds. In this case at least, the search giant did the right thing.

The NASCAR crash followed much the same pattern so many news events do now, in the age of real-time and social media: moments after the crash occurred, there were multiple eyewitness photos and videos of the incident, including one particularly horrific one captured by university sophomore Tyler Andersen, who was sitting just to the left of the section that was hit by the debris — including a tire that flew off the race car in question. Soon, a link to the video on YouTube was racing through Twitter and other channels.


In this case, Google decided to over-rule NASCAR

Suddenly, however, the video was no longer available, and in its place was a standard YouTube message about the content being removed because of a copyright claim by NASCAR. This raised a host of questions for those who were trying to access it, including: How could the racing entity remove the video so quickly? Why didn’t YouTube protest that it should be protected by the principle of fair use, since it was a news event? And how could NASCAR claim that it had copyright over a video that was created by a fan?


The latter question was answered hours later when YouTube reinstated the video and released a statement saying that partners such as NASCAR are only allowed to remove content that breaches their copyright, and the content in question didn’t pass that test (even though NASCAR asserts in the fine print when you buy a ticket that it owns everything fans produce while at an event). Said the YouTube statement:

“Our partners and users do not have the right to take down videos from YouTube unless they contain content which is copyright infringing, which is why we have reinstated the videos.”

The other two questions people had are even easier to answer. In a nutshell, Google provides its YouTube partners with an easy way to have content removed almost immediately: it’s a tool called Content ID, and it’s essentially a back-door to the YouTube content-management system. When a company like CNN or NBC or some other partner sees their TV shows or news clips being shared on YouTube without permission, they can submit a form and have it pulled down.

One of the main reasons why Google does this — and why it doesn’t bother (except in extreme cases) to protest or demand an explanation for takedown requests — is that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act or DMCA only gives services like YouTube “safe harbor” from copyright-infringement charges so long as the company acts quickly when it receives a takedown notice. In effect, there is virtually no leeway for protests or attempts to get a provider to defend their demands.


As a number of observers — including Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation — noted during the NASCAR incident, this is just one of the many ways in which the DMCA actually fosters bad behavior, or at least behavior that seems bad if you believe in free speech and freedom of the press. The fact that Google acted quickly to put the content back up is admirable, but it shouldn’t have to do this, and there are no doubt many other important cases in which it hasn’t that don’t involve something as attention-getting as a race-car crash.

And as Jason Pontin of MIT’s Technology Review pointed out in a recent essay on free speech in a digital era, our speech is to a large degree controlled by private corporations like Google and Twitter and Apple, and in many ways we are still coming to grips with what that means for us as a society.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Petteri Sulonen