The recent emergence of Web sites that encourage the public to upload copies of their own video and audio content is highlighting the difficulties...

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — The recent emergence of Web sites that encourage the public to upload copies of their own video and audio content is highlighting the difficulties of controlling the illicit spread of copyrighted material.

The new sites are coming online at a time when technology is making it increasingly easy for people to copy, record, edit and upload video and audio content to the Web.

The latest publicized copyright-related incident came in early July, when Google acknowledged that it was forced to take down illegal copies of the Hollywood feature film “The Matrix Revolutions” and episodes of “The Simpsons,” which had been uploaded to a new Google video-search site.

At least a dozen other copyrighted files have also been discovered on the site, at video.google.com/.

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Google is not alone in facing the issue.

Several other new sites — including Ourmedia.org and the Open Media Network (omn.org) — encourage users to submit digital-media files, unintentionally opening the door to the illicit sharing of copyrighted material.

To date, the number of illicit files appearing on the sites has been relatively small, particularly compared with the peer-to-peer file-sharing networks that have incurred the wrath of Hollywood.

Ourmedia, a nonprofit “grass-roots media” Web site, was launched in March, soliciting independently made video, audio and text files.

Since the service opened, administrators have seen about four dozen instances in which users uploaded copyrighted material, a fraction of the 14,000 files currently hosted on the site, said J.D. Lasica, co-founder of Ourmedia of Pleasanton, Calif.

Ourmedia does not screen content before it is uploaded to the site, Lasica said.

But volunteer site administrators perform spot checks “after the fact.”

The site made it clear from the outset that it would not tolerate uploads of copyrighted material.

“We decided early on, even though we’re not technically liable, that we don’t want to open the floodgates,” Lasica said.

“We said let’s focus on ‘our media,’ not ‘their media.’ “

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) puts the onus on Internet users to act responsibly when it comes to copyrighted material — and for Web sites and Internet service providers to step in when they don’t.

So Web sites such as Google or Ourmedia are not required to screen content when it is uploaded to their servers.

But they must respond quickly when they find out that copyrighted material may have been inappropriately placed on their systems.

“The theory is that there’s so much content moving around, it would be unfair to put that burden on an ISP,” said Catherine Kirkman, a media law expert at the Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati law firm in Palo Alto, Calif. “In general, the legal requirements respect that ISPs can’t possibly police everything.”

Proactive screening

Google’s video-search site, launched this year, is a two-headed animal.

The site indexes televised content, including programming from the Discovery Channel, CNN and San Francisco-area news shows. Searchers can access excerpts from transcripts and still images from those shows — but not video footage, yet.

More recently, though, Google began to allow members of the public to upload their own video footage to make it accessible to Internet users.

Google says it uses “both a manual and automated process” to screen video uploads for “adult content or obvious copyright violations.”

But the company says its screening process is not bulletproof, and it encourages users to report suspected copyright violations.

“We proactively screen for copyright, which goes beyond the DCMA,” spokesman Steve Langdon said.

That stance so far appears to be enough to appease Hollywood studios, which have made piracy and copyright infringement a top priority in recent years.

“When they find it, they take it right down,” said a Hollywood movie-studio spokesman, who declined to be quoted by name. “That’s all you can ask for.”

Realizing when something violates copyright law is not always clear, however.

Some video and audio files combine content such as audio clips or video snippets from a wide variety of sources, some original, some commercial.

What’s fair use?

Artists are generally allowed to reuse portions of copyrighted material under the concept of fair use. But the definition of fair use is vague, at best.

Minneapolis documentary filmmaker Chuck Olsen has created a documentary, titled “Blogumentary,” about blogs and their effect on politics and media.

It is precisely the type of independently produced content that the Ourmedia founders would love to see on their site.

But Olsen opted not to upload his film to Ourmedia because it contains some commercial pop music and clips from network news shows.

“To me, it’s pretty much clear-cut fair use,” Olsen said. “But fair use hasn’t really been tested, especially in films. I’m just playing it safe.”

Although Google has apparently become more vigilant about removing obviously copyrighted material, such as full-length films or whole television episodes, its site still hosted short clips from shows such as “The Simpsons” as of early July.

“Where things get quite interesting is in these gray areas,” said John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, “instances where the rights are not always that clear cut.”