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YouTube sues MP3 conversion tool as the industry prepares for a new fight over content rights

youtube mp3 conversion tool Google has had an interesting relationship with the music industry in regard to piracy. Rights holders have continually insisted that given Google’s power over search, it should block sites where you can illegally download music. Of course, the other side of that argument is that the world’s largest search engine should distance itself from censorship as much as possible as well as the fact that plenty of sites offering illegal downloads also have plenty of content that is legal to obtain.

In the midst of this never-ending argument is Youtube-MP3.org. The site is a simple tool for taking YouTube videos and converting them into MP3 files by simply copying and pasting a video’s URL. Then you can download this content to your computer, and even add it to iTunes if you so desire.

That might sound a lot like illegally downloading music – but there’s a very important loophole. According to YouTube-MP3 founder Philip Mantesanz, the application doesn’t use the YouTube API… which is one of the things it’s being accused of doing in Google’s lawsuit against the site in Germany.

In addition to YouTube-MP3’s denial of violating YouTube’s Terms of Service, Mantesanz’s lawyers “agree that there are no copyrights of a third party violated by providing this service and it has to be considered legal,” because according to German law it is legal to download digital radio broadcasts as well as YouTube videos. YouTube-MP3 has launched a petition to fight Google and remain up and running.

But YouTube-MP3 isn’t singularly in Google’s crosshairs: Other YouTube conversion websites have also been targeted by claims of TOS violation and copyright infringement. TorrentFreak reports that Music-Clips.net received a letter from YouTube accusing it of the same. And it probably won’t be the last, because this is a new form of piracy that rights holders are going to have to fight, and it’s gaining steam.

Earlier this year, in the wake of Spotify’s US launch, there was another, less hyped launch for an app called SpotifyRip. The tool provides a function called stream ripping, where it records music from your sound card without any background noise and then lets you save that file. Again, sounds illegal… but again, it’s technically not. As the site explains in hilariously honest plain speak:

Is ripping streamed music illegal? No. The general consensus is that streaming web radio sites like spotify [sic] are legal to rip from for personal use. Nobody has ever been tried in court for this matter. However you may need to check in certain parts of the world with more restrictive laws. It is impossible for sites and application like Spotify to know that you are doing this, however ripping music does go against Spotify’s terms of service. If you were to publicly announce that you were doing it in some way then they would have every right to ban you. But apart from this they could never know. Can I pass the ripped songs on to my friends? Legally, no. This is a form of file sharing. You should only rip for personal use.”

What YouTube-MP3 and its cohorts are doing would be consider audio ripping, and it’s one giant grey area. Basically, because streaming and broadcasting applications like YouTube, Pandora, Vimeo, Spotify, and the like are so new, the powers that be haven’t adapted their policies to specifically outlaw converting or recording these files.

Defenders of audio ripping could also argue this is similar to what DVR services are doing: recording live TV for later use. Canada recently passed a law called the C-11 Copyright Modernization bill upholding this very function:

“The bill C-11 text states that if content an individual acquires legally (such as YouTube), uses for private purposes, not gives the content away, makes no more than one copy, and keeps the content for a reasonable amount of time in order to listen at a more convenient time, then, ‘It is not an infringement of copyright for an individual to fix a communication signal, to reproduce a work or sound recording that is being broadcast or to fix or reproduce a performer’s performance that is being broadcast, in order to record a program for the purpose of listening to or viewing.’

This means that under C-11 a citizen is within the law to ‘Time Shift’ audio from YouTube to be listened to later on their computer. The digital rights do not end here. Next, under C-11 ‘it is not an infringement of copyright for an individual to reproduce a work or other subject-matter or any substantial part of a work or other subject-matter’ meaning they can ‘Format Shift’ the audio downloaded from YouTube to the medium of their choice, such as iPod, CD, thumb drive, et cetera, as long as the content was obtained legally, not reproduced from an infringement, not distributed to others, and used for private use. C-11 legislation does not prohibit individuals from taking audio from YouTube and transferring it to your favorite devices for later listening.”

The music distribution industry and rights holders have been pretty preoccupied with targeting BitTorrent and other P2P file-sharing sites – and they’ve done so effectively, as music piracy has significantly decreased. But that’s the nature of the digital beast: There’s always another and a newer way. And if there isn’t, the Internet will invent one.