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The music industry signs up Taylor Swift and U2 in its fight against YouTube

An open letter to Congress asks for change to the DMCA, but it’s aimed at Google’s video site.

Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for TAS
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

The music industry is ratcheting up its fight against YouTube. And Taylor Swift is joining in.

Swift is one of dozens of musicians who have attached their names to an open letter to Congress calling on lawmakers to rewrite legislation used by YouTube and other big web platforms that they say “threaten[s] the continued viability of songwriters and record artists to survive.”

A coalition of musicians including Swift and U2, along with industry players and the three big music labels (Universal Music, Sony Music and Warner Music), has taken out ads featuring the letter in political publications like Politico and the Hill.

Technically, Swift and her co-signers are complaining about the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the 1998 law that governs the way big internet companies can use material uploaded by their users. But like other complaints about the DMCA that the industry has made this year, this one is really about YouTube.

In short: Musicians and companies that own music are complaining that Google’s video site doesn’t give them enough money for the use of their music, and that YouTube doesn’t give them a real choice about whether and how their music is used. YouTube argues that it generates billions for the music industry (and that pirate sites don’t pay bupkis) and that it has created sophisticated tools that make it easy for music owners to control their works.

The other bit of important context is that all of the big music labels are in discussions to renew their licensing deals with YouTube.

The content of today’s open letter isn’t any different from previous complaints the industry has lobbed — some of the language, in fact, is literally the same. The letter’s organizer, manager Irving Azoff, thinks that the optics are different: It’s the first time Swift and some other A-listers have added their names. The same goes for the big music labels.

That’s particularly important, Azoff thinks, in the event that lawmakers don’t overhaul the DMCA anytime soon — a decent bet, given that they might be occupied with other tasks in an election year. If that’s the case, and if YouTube doesn’t give music makers the concessions they want, then the music labels will take their music away from YouTube, Azoff predicts.

“If you [are] one of the big labels, and you continue to do business with YouTube the way you currently have, that’s a bad sign for all the people that signed that letter,” Azoff said. “I would be shocked, after supporting all these artists in a letter to Congress, [if] these big labels would turn around and make voluntary extensions to YouTube.”

Many reasonable people, including ones at the top of YouTube’s org chart, believe that the music industry’s campaign against the DMCA is simply a public negotiation over new licensing terms.

It’s also reasonable to point out that Swift and many other artists who have signed on to the letter to Congress have used YouTube to their advantage. Last year, for instance, when Swift refused to let Spotify play her new album on the free, ad-supported version of its service, she kept her videos available for free on YouTube.

That doesn’t matter, says Azoff. “It’s not just about the money. It’s about control and what we leave behind in the future,” he said. “This isn’t a fee dispute. It’s far deeper. That’s why it’s really dangerous for anybody to hide behind the DMCA if they need a relationship with anybody in the music business.”

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