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YouTube visitors upload 65,000 videos every day and download 100 million of them. Since all those videos have to come from somewhere, it’s no surprise that many are pirated – that is, copied from commercial TV broadcasts and movies and posted without the permission of the copyright holders.

YouTube and similar video-sharing services deal with these copyright violations after they occur: by taking down the material if they receive a complaint from the legitimate copyright holder. But given the sheer number of videos uploaded to the Internet every day, it’s a losing battle.

What’s needed, say researchers in digital rights management, are ways to automatically screen out pirated videos before they’re uploaded, and to track down people who make pirate copies.

And, as it turns out, such technology is nearing the point of widespread adoption. One video-sharing site, Guba, has already begun to filter out copyrighted videos using a home-grown system dubbed “Johnny.” The system reduces a video file to a mathematical representation and then excludes it from the site if its “fingerprint” matches one in a database of commercial videos.

Media-technology companies such as Philips and Thomson are also working on ways to thwart video pirates. Thomson has introduced a system that embeds invisible “watermarks” in movies, allowing studios to trace online copies of movies recorded by camcorder users to the specific theater and movie showing where they were pirated.

These new technologies have their own limitations, though. For one, it’s not clear that fingerprinting technology can keep up with the thousands of hours of TV programming broadcast every day. And watermarking a movie doesn’t help catch the pirates themselves. But these new copyright-protection mechanisms may at least help video-sharing sites avoid the fate of the infamous music-trading sites Napster and MP3.com, which closed down after legal attacks by content owners.

Pirated video makes up about one-fifth of the moving-image content uploaded to video-sharing sites, according to Tom McInerney, founder and CEO of San Francisco-based Guba. And while the sharing sites benefit indirectly from pirated videos, which generate Web traffic and advertising impressions, hosting this material is often more trouble than it’s worth.

In a well-publicized case in February, for example, NBC threatened legal action against YouTube if the site refused to remove a video of a popular “Saturday Night Live” skit (a skit that would not have become popular, ironically, if it hadn’t been posted on YouTube). YouTube complied, but caught flak from hundreds of its users for supposedly buckling under to a giant “old-media” company. And in July, the helicopter pilot who filmed the beating of trucker Reginald Denny during the 1992 riots in Los Angeles sued YouTube for hosting a pirated copy of his video. He’s demanding $150,000 in damages for every viewing of the video.

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