markus-winkler-Xr1Lwph6eGI-unsplashThere is broad philosophical debate, dating back to the dawn of the advent of tools and other implements manipulated by humans, as to freedom and agency as it regards their use. Plenty of tools are designed to be used for the betterment of the species, and are far more frequently used as such, but can be corrupted for darker purposes. One smarter than myself might argue that such a dichotomy reflects the duality of human nature, but that's likely a bit grandiose for a column on intellectual property. Suffice it to say, every tool is a weapon of sorts in the wrong hands. But does that offer justification to take those tools out of the hands of users?

The RIAA seems set on doing just that. As reported by Tim Cushing in Techdirt, the association representing major rightsholders is filing a takedown claim with Github over software hosted on the site hey claim is used to violate copyright. The software in question, youtube-dl, gives users the ability to download videos off of YouTube, but isn't itself in violation of copyright. The RIAA's claim hinges upon Section 1201 of the DMCA, which deals with the prohibition of methods of circumventing copyright protections. Given that regular YouTube doesn't allow for users to download others' videos, the RIAA's assertion is that youtube-dl is in violation of that statute.

The RIAA trying an end-around by using DMCA copyright claims to remove content isn't a new tact, but its familiarity doesn't give it any firmer standing in this case. As Cushing notes, not every YouTube video is subject to copyright, and for those videos, youtube-dl is a perfectly legitimate tool. Which brings us back to our central question: does some misuse of an otherwise legitimate tool give a company like the RIAA the right to shut it down entirely, including for law-abiding users?

The answer would appear to be no; Cushing cites Sony v Universal, which determined that such tools are not in themselves infringing even if they are sometimes used for those purposes. Perhaps more germane, any program like youtube-dl has been downloaded enough times that it will continue to live on hosted on any number of other sites, so the proverbial genie is out of the bottle, regardless of the merits of the case in hand.

Given that YouTube is a revenue stream for independent cretors and big rightsholders alike, it's understandable that either would act to stop the potential loss of ad revenue generated from the site. But looking to take the step of removing a software tool entirely and foreclosing its legitimate uses for countless people is likely a step too far, even for companies willing to go to considerable lengths to protect their content.