When Machines Mistake Music: The Samsung Washing Machine Saga on YouTube

Every day brings a new surprise from the digital age, but once in a while it will throw out a story so strange it could be a tale from the emerging folklore of cybernetics. The story I’m about to share is the digital rights-management controversy that began with a Samsung washing machine.

The Unintended Symphony of SAMSUNG

It started out innocently enough, with a wash cycle. During a YouTube video of his laundry day, the gamer and YouTuber ‘Albino’, who streams video games and has an Instagram account with more than 2 million followers, got hit with an absurd copyright claim after his Samsung washing machine, after its cycle was doing its thing, the Content ID system on YouTube flagged the chime (signalling that the laundry was done) as a copyrighted song – the music ‘Done’ by Audego.

A Washing Machine's Copyright Claim?

Investigation by Albino showed that the controversial chime was, literally, a fragment of ‘Die Forelle’ (“The Trout”) by Franz Schubert, a work that rests squarely in the public domain and, incidentally, that Samsung has infamously used to advertise its washing machine. But here was YouTube advising Albino to split his income with some party that said it held copyright over the theme of a... washing machine?

YouTube's Content ID Conundrum

YouTube’s automated system for protecting copyrighted works, not a human, had decided that a genuine, legitimate copyright violation constituted a far closer match of a noise than the audible chime of a household appliance during a live recording. ‘I’m pissed off about it. It’s kindig of broken,’ Albino said of the labyrinthine dispute process. He was hardly alone.

The Legal Labyrinth

But this quickly escalated into a broader dispute over the legal and moral role of automated copyright policing. YouTube’s reliance on Content ID has been a double-eduledged sword, protecting intellectual property and imposing copyright disputes on creators over small details, such as the end-of-cycle chime of a washing machine.

Solutions in the Digital Age

While YouTube was working to settle Albino’s claim, the case revealed the stark challenges facing creators and platforms in moderating work at scale. The circumstance illustrated a need for a more contextual approach to copyright detection that would put meaning and substance before automation.

Learning from SAMSUNG's Melodic Mishap

As the case of Samsung’s problematic washing machine copyright is likely to show, computerised content management systems are still far from being able to consistently identify the nuances of the legal landscape of copyright. If automated systems are to effectively understand licences, their comparative speed would be irrelevant if they fundamentally misunderstand what they are paying attention to, akin to a car being faster than a human, but missing a red light.

Beyond the Chime: Understanding SAMSUNG

Samsung was one of the first tech and appliance giants to embrace innovation based on classical music, using melodies to notify customers ‘when your laundry is dried’. So when the copyright claim against the chime on a Samsung washing machine came through, we might see it as just one more indication of how innovation in copyright and digital rights management creates problems nobody saw coming until it was too late.

By combining technology with the arts, Samsung had – unwittingly – dragged itself into the copyright wars. For a brief moment, washing machines and smart TVs were the stars, or at least the supporting cast, in a digital age drama that continues to perplex. Among the many issues raised by this saga is that of automated copyright systems. This story also reveals that, when it comes to the regulation of digital content through digital rights management, the waters are still every bit as choppy as they have been all along.

Jun 02, 2024
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