A new front has opened in the digital age's war on copyright infringement. Israeli Internet surfers - used to uploading video clips of local musicians onto YouTube - discovered a few weeks ago that Unicell, a company which represents the digital rights of, among others, Sarit Hadad, Regev Hod, Koby Peretz and Lior Narkis, had closed their user accounts on the site, claiming copyright abuse.

This story is just one example of legal wranglings over the ambiguities surrounding music copyright on the Internet. The gap between performers and their fans is widening and deepening in the digital age: private users, who do not make commercial use of the content they upload, many times violate copyright law without even knowing it.

The owners of those rights, in contrast, do not look benignly on the presence of free distribution of their work.

Oldies but illegalies

The policy at YouTube is that until they receive a complaint about copyright abuse on the site, they don't remove content. Upon receipt of a complaint, the material is withdrawn, and sometimes the user's account is shut down completely, as is access to all the material accumulated there. And indeed, when Unicell asked to have all its clients' clips removed, they were withdrawn, much to the dismay of users, who see their virtual activity as one which promotes Israeli music worldwide.

One of the more prominent Israeli users of YouTube is 40-year-old Guy, who has been operating his own homepage there for three years. Guy says that he spends about two hours every day uploading content. He focuses on old archival material: Israeli music which is now considered classic.

"I do it out of love and I have no commercial interests," he says. "The idea behind this is ideological, romantic, to expose older cultural material, to make it accessible to as many people as possible. In most cases it is not readily available anywhere else."

For example, he has uploaded the contents of singer-songwriter Matti Caspi's first album from 1974, and material from the "Siba L'mesiba" ("Excuse for a Party") television program, which aired on the Channel One from 1984-1990.

Most of the responses he gets, according to Guy, are from former Israelis who live abroad; they are enthusiastic and ask him to add more material.

He admits that he is not current on copyright law, but believes removal of the content from the Internet is proof of narrow-mindedness.

"Perhaps exposure to this material in fact increases demand," he says. "YouTube is no substitute for purchasing music in higher quality formats; it simply provokes nostalgia. This work is a community service."

He says that in the past copyright holders have asked him to remove their material and he did so immediately. According to Guy, he fills a role that the broadcasting authorities and media companies have not taken upon themselves: digitizing and accessing archives.

Livny, also a YouTube account holder, explains that the problem is that almost no Israeli media companies open official sites, as many international companies do.

And even if the Israelis learn from their counterparts abroad, it doesn't mean that the situation will improve. In March YouTube blocked access to clips uploaded by official British recording companies. British users were blocked in the wake of a conflict about the size of royalties between YouTube and PRS, the British copyright organization.

ACUM, the Israeli copyright association for musicians and writers, is conducting negotiations with Google, which has acquired YouTube, in order to come to an agreement about the size of royalties. ACUM refuses to discuss the details, but a week ago they issued a statement that "ACUM has been in negotiations with YouTube for some time, in order to regularize use of works in the ACUM catalog. No licensing agreement has been reached yet. If one is not reached within a reasonable amount of time, ACUM will be forced to request that YouTube remove material belonging to ACUM members from the site."

It is important to note that when the PRS affair exploded in March, an ACUM spokesperson issued a similar statement.

The fact that a video clip's copyright is split between photographic rights and rights to the soundtrack also makes it harder for YouTube and royalty enforcers to reach agreements. Livny says that removing these sites in fact hurts artists' rights, because clips on YouTube provide a broader exposure than they can expect anywhere else.

"Removing clips that have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times in Israel and abroad is bad for our positive exposure overseas," he continues. "It is unnecessary to add that tens of thousands of Israelis surf YouTube and upload clips with no commercial intentions, and will continue to reload the clips which are removed, again and again."

Only after contemporary music

Unicell's director of content, Gil White, says that the company takes action mainly against users who upload short films of contemporary artists who are its clients, and not those who upload archival, rare or esoteric material.

The company represents the digital rights of particular artists, mainly those in the region. The copyright owner, White reminds us, is not necessarily the artist, and might be a producer or a recording company.

Unicell acts as agent between the rights owner and the digital platform: Internet sites or cellular platforms such as Pelephone's Musix and VOD, which are interested in selling content or to display them for a royalty fee.

White says that Unicell also works to see that copyright laws are enforced. "By right of representation, as part of the service," he explains, "We have begun a process to regularize the mess that exists today in the area of copyright and the Internet. Our goal is to prevent use of digital media in the absence of royalty agreements."

One victim of that cleanup is clip creator Yoni Mordechai. He created a YouTube site and uploaded about 100 musical clips (including Synergia, Lior Narkis and Harel Moyal) which were viewed hundreds of thousands of times.

"That was when YouTube was still innocent," he says.

Mordechai's account was closed about three weeks ago at Unicell's request. He attempted to contact YouTube directly but is losing hope in the face of a complicated legal process, and is now consulting a lawyer about what steps to take.

"The artists gave the mandate to Unicell, and asked for the withdrawal of a large number of clips," he says. "I understand them. The world is commercial. They want people to pay. I thought YouTube was a free site and it was legitimate to place my work on it. They want to maximize income. I know which world I live in."