Twitch still has yet to confirm reports of a $1 billion buyout by Google, but the company is already making some big changes. Today, the streaming service announced two changes to its video-on-demand offerings, which covers archived Twitch broadcasts and their highlights.
Leaving The Past (Broadcasts) Behind
The first change involves how Twitch handles past broadcasts and highlights. Prior to now, when you finished a streaming broadcast, Twitch would automatically save the entire video to your dashboard. You could view the broadcast, cut highlights from it, and then upload those highlights to YouTube. Currently, if you don't mark a past broadcast as "Save Forever" in your dashboard, it disappears after 3 days.
For Twitch, there were a few behind-the-scenes quirks. First of all, past broadcasts were saved across multiple Twitch servers in 30 minute sections and if a server holding one chunk goes down, the entire broadcast becomes unavailable. Second, if you cut any highlights from a past broadcast Twitch had to save the whole thing, not just the highlighted bit. Finally, all videos were saved in FLV, a Flash video format, meaning they're not playable on every device. According to Twitch's internal metrics, all of this work was for naught; the company found that 80 percent of its total storage capacity was used for past broadcasts that were never watched, meaning it was paying for a ton of wasted space. So, changes.
Moving forward, past broadcasts are automatically saved for 14 days (60 days for Turbo subscribers and Twitch partners). Highlights will be saved indefinitely, with a maximum length of 2 hours, but past broadcasts can no longer be saved forever. Even existing past broadcasts will be deleted beginning three weeks from now, so Twitch is asking that existing users export any past broadcasts they want to keep to YouTube (in 2 hour chunks). To make the process smoother, Twitch has launched a new Video Manager.
If you've been broadcasting on Twitch for a long time, there's some annoyance, but for most Twitch users, these changes are probably for the better.
That Sweet, Legal-Free Silence
It's Twitch second new "feature" that has many fans of the service up in arms. Twitch has partnered with Audible Magic to implement a system that flags copyrighted audio in archived broadcasts. (The service doesn't affect live streams.)
"Starting today, Twitch will be implementing technology intended to help broadcasters avoid the storage of videos containing unauthorized third-party audio," says the company. "We respect the rights of copyright owners, and are voluntarily undertaking this effort to help protect both our broadcasters and copyright owners.
Audible Magic listens to saved broadcasts and highlights, looking for in-game music and ambient music in breach of copyright. Audible Magic scans videos in 30 minute sections. If it hears any flagged content, the software mutes the audio in the entire section before moving on to the next 30 minute block. This means certain past broadcasts can end up being completely silent. There's a clear notification on affected Twitch broadcasts and you can tell which section of the video is affected by the handy red section of the progress bar.
This is a problem. Certain Twitch streamers listen to songs while they're streaming, but more importantly, certain games have licensed music. Broadcasts of games like Grand Theft Auto V, Watch Dogs, or Saints Row IV are adversely affected by the service. Streamers never know which songs will trigger Audible Magic, so affected titles may as well be on a "Do Not Stream" list.
Here's a few silent videos you can already find on Twitch: an episode of the Twitch Weekly Show, a Mike Tyson's Punch Out speedrun, Ubisoft's official Rocksmith stream, this Fallout 3 stream, or this Hearthstone tournament stream. Audible Magic is already delivering false positives as well. This channel directly affiliated with the developer of rhythm roguelike Crypt of the Necrodancer is dead silent, despite the developer noting that the soundtrack isn't finished and hasn't been submitted for copyright.
The Burden of Joining Big Business
The addition of Audible Magic to Twitch's service points towards the acquisition by Google being completely true. Google's YouTube has a similar problem with its Content ID service that looks for copyrighted content on YouTube channels. Like Audible Magic, Content ID is a bit too over-zealous in doing its job.
Logically, Audible Magic is better than Content ID, since offending videos still exist, they're just silent; Content ID automatically diverts ad revenue to what it believes is the correct owner of the copyrighted content. The worse case scenario for professional YouTube entertainers is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown, which can see a channel removed from YouTube altogether. Twitch's current implementation is better than that, but this still isn't an optimal situation.
The surprising thing from a business perspective is that it's taken this long for Twitch to start dealing with these issues. Up until now, the company has relied on the fact that it's big enough to make good money, but not big enough to really be on the radar of major content owners. 45 million viewers, articles in magazines like Fast Company, and a possible acquisition by Google have changed that rather quickly.
Twitch is now in the limelight, so it has to walk the straight and narrow. As a privately-held company, it has to do what it can to keep itself out of legal crosshairs. It's cheaper to operate a system that automatically flags offending content and deal with the aftermath from a thousand tiny cuts than it is to be stuck in a large, protracted lawsuit. That's why services like Audible Magic exist and why YouTube's Content ID works the way it does. It's smarter to operate assuming "guilty until proven innocent" than to err on the side of streamers and video producers.
Why Does This Suck So Much?
The reason for all of this actually goes back to YouTube. Way back in 2007, media giant Viacom sued Google, claiming that YouTube willfully infringed on its copyrights by allowing users to upload videos that included copyrighted work. This was despite YouTube noting that it had removed offending content immediately once it was notified by Viacom. That legal battle finally ended in a settlement this year, but by then Google had already spent millions. In 2010, Google estimated it had spent $100 million on the case already.
For many companies, it's better to err on the side of those with the most money, meaning larger content owners. Unfortunately this means most content watchdog systems favor the accuser, not the accused. Reversing a Content ID hit or DMCA takedown on YouTube takes far longer than the inciting action. In fact, DMCA takedown requests have been used as a form of censorship in some cases.
So, what's the answer? Leaving Twitch for services like Hitbox or Azubu has been brought up by some - notably SpeedRunsLive.com co-founder Cosmo Wright - but that only leaves us back here again when the next service in line gets popular enough to catch the eye of big business.
The real answer is that copyright and copyright law in the United States need to be fixed, but that's a much bigger problem to tackle. The original intention of U.S. copyright law was to protect creators and provide them with an incentive to keep creating. Most of our problems pivot on the idea of fair use, which is a large grey area; where's the exact dividing line between copyright infringment and fair use?
Sharing content, and by extension copyright infringment, is painfully easy these days; smaller creators can find themselves losing out on money and credit as the internet copies and disseminates their work. It's good to have laws to protect creative work. The problem is when those laws can be created and dictated by large corporations (see the Copyright Term Extension Act, which was the end result of heavy lobbying by the Walt Disney Company). These big companies have lots of money to throw at keeping the system working in a way that doesn't inconvenience them. Having to police YouTube, Twitch, or any other streaming video service requires time and manpower, both of which cost money.
So here we sit, watching silent videos. I honestly don't have an easy fix for you, because this is one of those situations where easy fixes don't exist. Twitch is handling this situation in a poor way, but it has to do something to protect itself before the legal hammers fall. The potential Google acquisition just changed when the company had to start worrying about the problem.