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Controversial changes to Twitch video game streaming service causes panic in the online community

twitch_thumpThis week, the landscape of video game livestreaming radically transformed as online broadcasting giant Twitch announced and implemented some major changes to its video on demand services, including a content ID system similar to YouTube to filter out copyrighted material.

What is Twitch?

I’ve mentioned Twitch TV multiple times in the past. Twitch is an online service that allows users to broadcast their video game playthroughs live on the Internet for anyone to watch. Twitch started in 2011, initially as a video game-centric spin-off of parent site Justin.tv, a service used for streaming anything other than video games. Eventually, video game livestreams blew up in popularity, and earlier this year, Justin.tv was rebranded as Twitch Interactive, causing the spin-off video game site to become the face of the company. It got to the point that Justin.tv closed down earlier this week in an effort to put more resources toward the video game streaming website.

Through Twitch, millions of people have found entertainment watching the likes of large eSports tournaments, like Evo and The International. Gamers have raised money for charitable causes by streaming weeklong video game marathons through Twitch. Twitch was also the star of a massive online social experiment featuring tens of thousands of people attempting to play a single game of Pokémon all at once. Every day, there’s always something crazy and wild on Twitch. Even right now, nearly 20,000 people are staring at a fish aimlessly swimming around a bowl in an experiment called Fish Plays Pokémon.

Twitch has more than 50 million active users a month, with more than 1 million people broadcasting their own gameplay for others to watch. Twitch has become such a big deal that both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 feature streaming functionality built-in to their respective hardware. Twitch is a constant source of entertainment. For some reason, watching other play video games has become just as fun as actually playing video games themselves. While its ridiculous, it’s all been in good fun, that is, until the events of this week.

Twitchs new archival video process threatens to delete mass amounts of content

On Wednesday, August 6, Twitch announced on its official blog some major changes to their video-on-demand (VOD) system. VODs are simply archived videos of live broadcasts after-the-fact. So, if you missed a livestream, you would just go to that channel’s VOD archive and you’d be able to watch whatever you had missed out on at your own convenience. The sweeping changes to this service came in two separate announcements, but we’ll start with the smaller scale one before moving on to the one that’s crushing people’s dreams.

Originally, the way the VOD system worked was that streamers had the option to automatically save any of their past broadcasts indefinitely for archival purposes. Eventually, Twitch removed the automated nature of this feature and instead had broadcasters manually save their videos; otherwise, they would be deleted after a certain period of time.

On Wednesday, Twitch announced their first change to the VOD system. All archived broadcasts would no longer be saved indefinitely, and existing videos on the Twitch site would be deleted in 3 weeks. In order to prevent videos from being deleted, users will have to use Twitch’s video highlight tool to create clips limited to a maximum length of 2 hours. Once the change occurs, any video not converted into a highlight will be deleted. From then on, any VOD must be converted to a highlight, or else they will be subject to deletion after a set period of time. Non-paying users would have their video deleted after 14 days, while paying Twitch subscribers and Twitch partners would have this period extended to 60 days.

Twitch explained that this change was necessary to grow the VOD service and allow features such as playback on mobile and console devices (currently, you must use a desktop Internet browser to view VODs). Twitch continued their reasoning by stating that 80 percent of their archived content were broadcasts that were never watched anyway, resulting in petabytes of ignored video.

This particular change was met with a lot of criticism from Twitch users, and the most vocal of the bunch was the speedrunning community. Many speedrunners use Twitch to broadcast their runs and use the VOD service to automatically archive them for posterity. The new changes in the system, however, throw a huge wrench into that process. Many speed runs go over the 2-hour limit of the new highlight system, making it a hassle to manually split up their runs into 2-hour chunks.

In an “Ask Me Anything” feature on Reddit on Thursday morning, Twitch CEO and founder Emmet Shear responded to criticisms by the speedrunning community specifically, admitting that they didn’t think about how this system would affect them, and how Twitch considers the speedrunning community an “edge case.”

Later that evening, Twitch announced on their blog that they would be removing the 2-hour limit on highlighted videos. Users will still have to manually create highlights out of their past broadcasts, but they can now be as long as they want, simplifying the process.

This is but a small victory in the grand scheme of things, as the biggest, most controversial change in Twitch history would come mere hours after the initial VOD announcement.

Twitch and Google?

 

Before getting into the horrifying present that Twitch streamers now live in, we have to delve into the recent past. In the past couple of months, hearsay on the Internet said Google was looking to acquire Twitch. With Twitch being a large hub of video game video content on the Internet, it’s not surprising to hear that Google was interested in taking a piece of that pie.

In late July, Venture Beat reported that Google, via their YouTube division, had acquired Twitch for a sum of $1 billion. Neither Google nor Twitch has announced such a deal, but the rumors of the buyout became omen of things to come.

As many YouTubers know, copyright infringement is a large part of the YouTube ecosystem. Copyright holders have hounded and continue to bombard YouTube with takedown notices for unauthorized use of licensed content by video creators. It’s a daily battle that Google and YouTube must fight, and to assist their fight, YouTube uses a system called Content ID to automatically catch copyrighted content in videos and trigger a multitude of outcomes, including removal of the offending video or placing ads in the video to benefit the copyright holder.

This system has opened itself to a constant barrage of criticism from content creators on YouTube. The system is not infallible, often creating false positives that result in legitimate videos being taken down. It’s a system that is open to abuse in that anyone can claim copyright on a video, be it from a valid copyright owner or a liar looking to ruin someone’s day.

So it’s not shocking to see that, upon hearing of Twitch’s potential acquisition by Google, the reaction was overwhelmingly negative, with fears of a similar Content ID system infecting the Twitch ecosystem. While the buyout remains in question, as neither company refuses to speak on the matter, the nightmare of Content ID on Twitch soon became reality.

Twitch pre-emptively bows down to the copyright-wielding overlords

 

Following the changes to the longevity of videos on Twitch’s VOD system, Twitch announced the biggest and most frightening change to the service yet: its own Content ID system. Twitch has partnered with Audible Magic, an automated audio recognition service that detects unauthorized third-party audio, and is applying it to their VOD content. Once the technology detects unauthorized use of copyrighted audio material, it will mute that portion of the video, and then some.

Audible Magic scans videos in 30-minute blocks. Once it detects audio that matches copyrighted material in its database, it will flag that video and mute out the audio of that entire 30-minute block, regardless of how long the offending material is actually present. This means if 10-minute video contains any piece of content that matches Audible Magic’s database, the entire video will be muted due the video being shorter than 30-minutes.

This form of audio censorship currently only applies to archived video content, and not livestreams. Twitch attempted to assuage people’s fears of the system spreading to live content, saying, “We have no plans at all for this to expand to live content. Even if we could run this on live this second, we absolutely would not.” Even so, people are still weary of Twitch’s future, and even more concerned about the present.

The intent seems to go after those streamers who play external third-party music while streaming. However, the system does not limit itself to detecting and removing unauthorized use of external music, but also music played within the game itself. This means games like Grand Theft Auto, which has licensed music playing on the in-game radio, will be subject to being muted. What makes things worse is that original video game music is actually being matched to music in Audible Magic’s database. It’s one thing remove audio from a video of someone playing Call of Duty while they listen to Britney Spears in the background. It’s another to punish someone for playing a Mario game just because the game has Mario music in it.

Speedrunner Cosmo Wright, one Twitch’s most popular broadcasters, sarcastically reacted to this news on Twitter, saying, “I’m sorry, streaming videogame music is banned on our website built to stream videogames.” Sarcasm aside, it’s unfortunately an accurate representation of what’s happening to Twitch.

In a heinous example, speedrunner Zallard (who famously beat Super Punch-Out!! blindfolded during AGDQ earlier this year), had one of his Punch-Out!! videos flagged with the label, “Audio for a portion of this video has been muted as it appears to contain copyrighted content owned or controlled by a third party.” The only thing audible on the video is Zallard’s voiced commentary and the game’s music and sound effects. Supposedly, the music from the game itself caused the entirety of the video to be muted. Muting any portion of these sorts of videos is detrimental, as important or entertaining commentary is missed out on just because of a small clip of music.

Like YouTube’s content ID system, the automated nature of Audible Magic can result in false positives. Since the systems implementation, it even censors audio of streamers who actually own the rights to the offending music. Infamously, videos from The International 4, an official tournament for the game Dota 2, broadcast on the official Dota 2 channel, was muted for containing music from Dota 2. Indie video game composer Danny Baranowsky, took to Twitter to assure people that he would not be taking down any archived streams containing music from his recent game Crypt of the NecroDancer. Unfortunately, the automated system still claimed a few victims in streaming his game, leaving Baranowsky confused as to how his music ended up matching up with items in Audible Magic’s database. Even Twitch’s official channel has been muted by the automated system.

While the concept of automated Content ID itself is heavily criticized, Twitch’s specific implementation of it brought even more disapproval. Twitch seems to be pre-emptively taking action without prompt from actual copyright holders. Usually, with the likes of YouTube, sites are not required to take down infringing material unless specifically requested by the copyright holder. Also unlike YouTube, Twitch does not currently offer options to copyright holders in reaction to infringing content, such as placing ads in front of the videos to share monetization. Twitch instead simply mutes the content with little notice to the content creator as to why the video was flagged. Twitch states that they are acting in the best interest of streamers by preventing takedown requests before they happen.

Currently, there is no system in place to report false positives, and unlike the three-week notice given for the initial VOD change, the automated removal of flagged audio was put into use immediately with no warning to Twitch users.

Twitch took to Reddit on Thursday morning to address many of these complaints about the Audible Magic System. Shear stated that they have plans to shorten the muting blocks from 30 minutes and give better notice as to why content has been flagged. He also said they are looking into the ability to share monetization with copyright holders and implementing an appeals feature. Shears also claimed that all instances of flagging original video game music in videos were mistakes, and that they will address the issue in the future. In response to the lack of notice given to Twitch users, Shear admitted, “Simply put: we screwed up and should have announced it ahead of time. Sorry.”

Why is Twitch doing this?

Many chalk up these recent controversial changes to Google’s potential acquisition of Twitch. It makes sense that they would attempt to strike parity with YouTube’s Content ID system if they ended up being under the same owner. Others, however, feel the opposite. Some critics believe Twitch’s actions to be too sloppy to be a mandate from Google, instead saying that these changes are acts of panic as a result of the Google deal that might have gone sour.

Either way, with the growing popularity of Twitch, it would end up in this place soon or later, but it can easily be argued that Twitch is awkwardly stumbling into this copyright-fearing future with how they’ve gone about their business so far.

In light of these announcements, many popular streamers are already looking for homes elsewhere, testing the waters at competitor video game streaming sites, such as Hitbox.tv, which has seen a lot of growth in the past couple of days thanks to recent events. Others are sticking with Twitch, waiting to see if they actually act on their promises of improving the service. The future of video game streaming as a whole is uncertain, but it looks like the golden age Twitch may be behind us for good.

By Alfredo Dizon, eParisExtra

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