Tuesday, April 30, 2013

YouTube: more sophisticated captions

As my regular viewers probably know, I always add closed captions to my videos. Not only do I have an audience split between English-speakers and German-speakers, but I also have a fair sprinkling of hearing-impaired viewers. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it.

Hitherto, YouTube has only officially supported two formats: SubRip and SubViewer. Both are good, both are easy to do by hand (they’re simple text files), both work, but both were only supported to the extent of their official specifications: no formatting of any kind.

When I uploaded my latest video, I noticed that YouTube had quietly introduced support for a raft of additional formats.

This is excellent news, particularly for professional broadcasters, who can now use broadcast-quality standards like EIA-608 for NTSC systems and EBU-STL for PAL. This gives them, assuming YouTube has implemented full support, a lot of flexibility regarding formatting, colours and so on.

For those of us stuck somewhere in the middle, for whom broadcast standard captions are a quagmire of technical jiggery-pokery, YouTube has provided at least partial support for some simpler formats that allow a slightly greater degree of flexibility.

One of those is a relatively new standard called WebVTT, which is designed primarily to allow browsers to implement captions and subtitles for HTML5 playback. Browsers don’t yet support this, but will do (we hope) in the future; since YouTube will eventually — even if it takes a few more years — move over to HTML5 video playback, support for WebVTT would seem the logical thing to do.

WebVTT is particularly attractive to me, because it is basically SubRip plus a few extra features; and I’ve been using SubRip ever since I started captioning my videos.

There are a few things YouTube’s implementation of WebVTT won’t do. Many features, notably colour, would normally be implemented by using stylesheet rules, but for the most basic reasons of security, YouTube can’t let you manipulate the site’s stylesheets. But other features implemented in the caption file itself also aren’t supported: position, alignment and size. (However, including the code for these features doesn’t throw up an error.)

What does work for WebVTT is italics, bold and underlining. Not much, but better than nothing, and it does enable you to add a little more expression, or differentiate between two speakers. YouTube also allows you to insert comments (which are not displayed).

I uploaded a test caption file to a video I had on my test account. You’ll see the formatting early on in the video (later in the video I experimented with the other features, which didn’t work). The button to enable captions is at the bottom, near the right, labelled either “CC” or with an icon representing subtitles at the bottom of a TV screen. Go here to watch the video.

If you are already familar with SubRip, as I was, the changes are minimal:
  • The file begins with the string WEBVTT followed by a blank line.
  • In the timecodes, replace commas with decimal points.
  • Comments are between subtitles, by typing NOTE (in capitals), followed by your comment; a blank line indicates the end of the comment.
  • Italic, bold and underlined text is indicated with HTML-style <i>, <b> and <u> tags.
For example, here is a subtitle in the original SubRip format:

00:00:08,600 --> 00:00:11,520
The microphone is a Rode Videomic,

And here it is converted to WebVTT, with the words “Rode Videomic” in italics:

00:00:08.600 --> 00:00:11.520
The microphone is a <i>Rode Videomic</i>,

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is pretty much it.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Disappearing videos

Before I get started on this, this isn’t a rant: it’s just a description of what has happened to two of my videos, one of which I took down voluntarily, the other of which was taken down by force with a copyright infringement complaint. Other people might rant and rave about such things: I tend to think that there are more things worth ranting and raving about.

The first video to disappear was that time-lapse video some may have seen of a bus journey. The actual time-lapse footage was bracketed between short real-time segments showing general views of bus stations. In those sequences, several people were visible. One of those people approached me last week and asked me to take the video down, for reasons he didn’t specify. It was a polite request, and I complied; not because I necessarily had to (I didn’t deliberately focus on him; he just happened to be in shot) but because the video had probably already run its course and it serves no purpose to gain a reputation. In Germany, the right to one’s own image is actually enshrined in law, and although crowd scenes and people randomly walking into shot are usually legally fine, people take this right extremely seriously. There is an aversion in this country to anything that smacks of a “Big Brother” society. No problem: I can re-edit it to remove the offending shot and upload a new version, if I so wish.

The second video disappeared the very next day. It was a video of me talking about successfully monetizing videos, and if you go there now (at the time of writing this), you will see a message referring to a complaint by New Voyage Communications.

Now, this isn’t the usual run-of-the-mill Content ID match, which is an automated process over which even the claimant doesn’t have full control: this is an actual complaint of copyright infringement pursuant to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Basically, New Voyage saw my video (unless they made a typo in the claim form and were actually trying to take down somebody else’s video), decided that it contained material that rightfully belongs to them and which I was using without their authorisation, and notified YouTube. This in turn means that YouTube is obliged to disable access to my video until the dispute is resolved. It’s important to note that YouTube is not at fault here: this is a legal dispute between me and New Voyage, and YouTube is merely fulfilling its legal obligations in order to avoid being held responsible for users’ infringing activities.

Quite why New Voyage thought my video contained their intellectual property I have no idea. The work they say I infringed is their documentary Tesla, Master of Lightning, which I hadn’t even heard about when I made my video. My best guess is that it’s my intro with the lightning bolts, with appropriate sound effect. (I haven’t seen the documentary, so I don’t know if that’s a possibility, but it sound plausible.)

One of the things this has taught me is that if you ever do receive a DMCA takedown notification, you cannot fail to notice. You get an e-mail for a start (in fact, I received two, one in English and one in German, for some insane reason); when you next visit YouTube you are confronted with a page full of a text, explaining what has happened.

At this point, I would urge anyone in this situation to actually read the text. All too often, the YouTube Help Forums are full of people saying they have received what they call a “copyright strike”, but it quickly becomes clear that they have no idea whether it’s a DMCA takedown or a Content ID match, and that they simply didn’t read the notification before dismissing it. Very often, they ask questions that are actually answered in the notifications they didn’t read, which is really frustrating. One user even copy-pasted the notification, complete with the “Click here to learn more” link, into the forum and asked what it meant and what he was supposed to do.

With this notice, there is an “I acknowledge” button, which you must click on before you can proceed. There is actually a problem here, because this “I acknowledge” button is not the same as the “I acknowledge” button on a Content ID match notice.

On a Content ID match, “I acknowledge” means that you acknowledge that the match is correct and you do not dispute it. They key thing here is that not clicking on that button does not prevent you from continuing and using YouTube. But if you do click on it, you can’t then dispute the match using the form provided by YouTube (although there is nothing stopping you from contacting the claimant directly, as they can release their claim any time they want).

If you are unable to do anything at all except click on “I acknowledge”, then this is a DMCA takedown, and “I acknowledge” simply means “I have read this text and understand that somebody is accusing me of copyright infringement.” There is no problem clicking on that.

You are then taken to Copyright School. If you are sent to Copyright School, even if you believe you did nothing wrong, I strongly urge you to watch the video: as infantile and annoying as it is, it does explain what the legal situation is, in very simple terms. In reality, it’s a lot more complicated, but the video does bust several quite dangerous myths and misconceptions. You then have to answer a series of true/false questions: take time to read the questions properly, and remember them. When you’ve done that, the correct answers are given with a short explanation of each: again, read this stuff, as the Help Forums are full of people who plainly haven’t read it and don’t understand why they’re being penalised.

When that’s done, you can access your account, where you will find you have a copyright strike, and you may also have lost some of your privileges. The video can still be found in your Video Manager, but it will be listed as having been removed. Many people make the mistake at this point of deleting the video, thinking this will remove the copyright strike: again, had they read the information they were given, they would know that this is not the case. A copyright strike may expire of its own accord after at least six months; if you want it removed sooner, you will have to have the dispute resolved in your favour. This is best done by submitting a counter notice, but this can only be done if you have legitimate grounds for doing this. In the entry in your Video Manager, you just click on “Submit Counter-Notification”: this takes you first to a page of text which — and I can’t stress this highly enough — you must read. It is very important that you do so: everyone concerned will assume you have actually done so, so if you do something wrong at this point, it’s your fault.

The counter notification form asks for private contact details, which you are required to give by law. This includes your home address and telephone number. If this worries you, you can have a lawyer submit a counter notification on your behalf, but those fields must be completed honestly and accurately. If you give very obviously false details, your counter notification may be rejected.

There is a field where you must tell YouTube why you are filing a counter notice, and a second field where you may tell the claimant why you are countering. You have a maximum of 200 characters in each field, so make it brief and to the point. Do not threaten or beg: just neutrally state your reasons. “No portion of the word allegedly infringed was used in my video” is a good reason (if it is true, obviously), and you don’t need to say any more than that.

Some people worry that if they abuse this form, they can be sued or prosecuted. Technically, this is true; but for that to happen, you’d have to be abusing the system on an industrial scale. In fact, I have never heard of this ever happening. That said, if you are not certain whether you can legitimate file a counter, you should really ask a legal expert before doing this.

What happens next is that once the claimant receives your counter, they have at least ten working days to respond. They can, if they wish, withdraw their complaint. If YouTube hears nothing at all, YouTube is at liberty (but is not legally required) to restore your video. This usually takes longer than the minimum ten working days.

If the claimant insists on their claim, they must go to court and obtain an order restraining you from your (allegedly) infringing activities. If that happens, you would need to defend yourself in court if you want a chance of regaining your video.

And this is where I could come unstuck, because of course I am in Germany. However, I can appoint somebody in the States to put my defence to the court.

But there is another, oft-overlooked, weapon in my arsenal: I can e-mail the claimant myself, which I plan to do in the next couple of days. Again, don’t threaten, beg or cajole: simply state your case as neutrally as you can. If possible, get somebody who knows a bit about law to at least read through your mail before you send it.

So that’s where I stand right now: counter notice submitted, polite e-mail in the works. I’ll let you know how this pans out.

Update 11 May: Ten working days after I received notification that my counter notice had been sent to the claimant, the complaint has been withdrawn, the copyright strike removed and all my privileges restored.

Friday, April 19, 2013

How to misinterpret a photograph

A couple of days ago, Commander Chris Hadfield, an astronaut currently on board the International Space Station, tweeted a photograph of Berlin by night, remarking on how it still shows the old east-west divide. The next day, The Telegraph picked up this image, and journalist Jeevan Vasagar (who is apparently in Berlin) waxed lyrical on this image, and came to an interesting conclusion. According to him, it “highlights the higher levels of commercial activity in the west”.

Does it?

Here’s the image as reprinted by The Telegraph:

According to the article, the bright lights in the government quarter and along West Berlin’s premier shopping boulevard the Kurf├╝rstendamm contrast with the “softer, yellow glow in the east”. This rather implies that the intrepid journalist believes that the yellow lights are dimmer than the whiter ones, and (although this is a bit ambiguous) that all the bright white lights are either in the west, or in the government quarter.

First, the “softer, yellow glow”. It was a commenter on The Telegraph going by the name of “george” who had the simple idea of desaturating the image — taking the colour out of it. “Find the line of wall now!” he said:

Not so easy. So now, where was the wall exactly? The article suggests all you need do is draw a line where yellow meets white, but in fact there’s a whole mass of white that is actually in former East Berlin; basically, the district of Mitte, central Berlin, where most of the tourists go. I’ve done my best to draw in where the wall went: it may not be completely accurate, but it’s good enough.

So now where are most of the bright lights? Clearly, there’s not much in it at all. In the west, the bright lights are stretched out into a long thin line, while in the east they’re in a large cluster. Now let me just add a few labels (you may need to click to make it readable):

The government quarter straddles the border just north of the Brandenburg Gate and is actually relatively poorly lit, save for a particularly bright spot which I first thought must be the Reichstag, but on reflection is more likely to be the helipad on the Chancellory. Stretching eastwards from the Brandenburg Gate is East Berlin’s main street, Unter den Linden, and you can clearly see where it intersects with Friedrichstrasse. The focal point of East Berlin is Alexanderplatz, which is ablaze. Potsdamer Platz is a new development on former No Man’s Land, while the Culture Forum, just to the west, is where the Philharmonic, the Chamber Music Hall, the State Library, the Crafts Museum and the National Gallery are located.

So there it is: contrary to what one newspaper would have you believe, East Berlin is looking very bright these days.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Monks, monuments and mice

Finally, we got out and about and I have started a new season of “Destination” videos. Last year I did absolutely nothing in this regard, being far too busy with the house. This year, we started early, despite the cold weather (it’s been the longest winter for a long time).

“We”, of course, means me and my ever-loyal wife; but this time we were joined by a friend and his colleague, who had just flown in from New York. Literally, “just” flown in: his flight landed at 11 in the morning, and we met up at one. This was his idea, by the way: a trick to combat jet lag. I hope he made it to work the next morning.

So here it is:

I’m not sure I’m completely happy with the edit: it seems a bit too tight. Then again, some people might appreciate the pace. In my defence, I did have three people in tow, and I didn’t want to ask them to hang around twiddling thumbs while I carefully selected shots and such, so I didn’t have as much footage as I’d normally have had.

Incidentally, I was exposed to an unlikely occupational hazard filming in the monastery church. As I was doing so, I saw something in the corner of my eye, falling, and I distinctly heard it land. It was, in fact, a bat, which appeared to have fallen through a crack in the ceiling. Our friend carefully picked it up in his gloved hand and put it out of the way on a ledge, although it clung very tightly to his thumb.

The story of the Mouse Tower of Bingen is one of those wonderful bits of folklore that make researching history such fun. Archbishop Hatto II did really live, although I haven’t been able to find out if he was as cruel as the legend says (probably not). But according to the full version of the legend, he used the tower to extort tolls from passing ships (it was, in real life, a customs post and watchtower, so that part of the legend is not without foundation), firing on them if the refused. He amassed huge amounts of grain and, when famine came, refused to share them with the peasants. When they complained, he appeared to relent: he told them to go into a barn and he would give them grain. Instead he locked them in and set fire to the barn. As they screamed in pain and terror, he said: “Can you hear the mice squeaking?” And so it was poetic justice that he was killed by hungry mice. Here’s a 16th-century depiction of this grisly affair:

In fact, this story is what is known as a “folk etymology”: the tower was called the “Mouse Tower”, and the legend was invented to fit. In fact, it’s a corruption of a much older word meaning something like “to watch”.

And for those architects who think I got my dates horribly wrong: no, the tower as we see it today is not the original 10th-century version, but a much later replacement.