Google Battles YouTube-To-MP3 Conversion Website

Google says it's just enforcing its terms of service, but founder Philip Matesanz insists Google's user contract doesn't apply.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

June 19, 2012

5 Min Read

Google has threatened legal action against, a website that converts the audio tracks of YouTube videos into downloadable MP3 files.

The website's founder, Philip Matesanz, posted an appeal for assistance and insists that recording streamed files for personal use is legal in Germany, where his website is based.

Google characterizes the issue as a simple terms of service (TOS) violation, something the company deals with on a regular basis. "We have always taken violations of our terms of service seriously, and will continue to enforce our terms of service against sites that violate them," a YouTube spokesperson said via email.

On that basis, the case seems to be fairly clear cut. YouTube's TOS state: "You shall not download any Content unless you see a 'download' or similar link displayed by YouTube on the Service for that Content. You shall not copy, reproduce, distribute, transmit, broadcast, display, sell, license, or otherwise exploit any Content for any other purposes without the prior written consent of YouTube or the respective licensors of the Content. YouTube and its licensors reserve all rights not expressly granted in and to the Service and the Content."

[ Read Google Sees Surge In Censorship Demands. ]

However, Matesanz maintains that his site does not use the YouTube API, so he is not bound by the API TOS, and he insists that YouTube's general TOS (excerpted above) doesn't apply either.

"This TOS has nothing to say about audio extraction but forbids [making] YouTube videos available for download, and that's something I don't do since I just provide the audio stream," he wrote in an email.

While users of Matesanz's website appear to violate YouTube's TOS by downloading YouTube content in the absence of a download button, might conceivably claim not to be involved in downloading. But it's hard to see how YouTube's lawyers couldn't make the case that is copying and reproducing YouTube content in contravention of the TOS.

However, Matesanz insists that YouTube's general TOS does not apply to those who don't have YouTube accounts. "In Germany, it's the case that you are not bound to a contract (TOS) as long as you haven't accepted it," he said. "YouTube is a public broadcasting site, you don't need to accept [its] TOS to use [its] service and therefore I am not bound to it, like every user that is not registered and hasn't agreed [to] the TOS."

Moreover, Matesanz claims that German law permits personal copying of broadcast content. "There was [an] online service that ripped the TV stream from satellite and the users could download it then," he explains. "The respective TV station sued the service provider but our highest court has ruled that his service is not any different than a hardware-box you connect to your TV and rip the signal with it instead. It's the same situation for my service as well."

An article published in Die Welt last year supports Matesanz's argument. It says that German law allows both the recording of digital radio broadcasts and the downloading of YouTube videos.

Kurt Opsahl, senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said in a phone interview that he couldn't immediately evaluate Matesanz's claims about German law. In the United States, he said, most cases on the applicability of TOS agreements focus on whether there was an affirmative act, like a click on a button, to signify assent. He says there are also what's known as browse-wrap contracts, that assert the user agrees to the terms by using the site, but adds this is harder to prove. What makes this case noteworthy is the irony and the futility.

First, the irony: Google's business is built upon copying the content of other websites--search indexing is copying--and the company continues to battle charges that its search-related copying violates copyright law. Mostly, Google has prevailed against such claims, though Viacom is still trying to undo an unfavorable decision in its infringement lawsuit against YouTube, and the Author's Guild appears to have the upper hand in its claim against Google's book scanning project.

In an open letter published on the website, Matesanz points to Google News and Google's book scanning as evidence of Google's willingness to copy content without prior permission from publishers.

Then there's the futility: If Google ultimately succeeds in shutting down or otherwise blocking, it will be a victory in name only. Any YouTube user who wishes to copy audio track of a YouTube video and save it as an MP3 file will be able to do so for the foreseeable future, with or without the assistance of (though doing so would represent a TOS violation). Not only are there plenty of other websites that offer this function, like, but there are also dozens of software applications that will do the same thing, to say nothing of videos on YouTube that offer instruction in ripping audio tracks from YouTube videos.

And that raises another issue: Does cloud computing mean giving up rights available to those using local software and hardware? Cablevision in 2009 won the right to operate a hosted DVR service for its customers, something broadcasters argued was unlawful. Yet YouTube's TOS rules enforce a distinction between what users can do with hosted files and what they can do with local files.

Matesanz says that's exactly the issue. "Does Google want [cloud services] to be equal to non-cloud services or not?" he asks.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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