Beggars Group chairman Martin Mills has made a striking speech criticising the effect that US ‘safe harbour’ laws have on independent labels, training his fire on YouTube and Grooveshark in particular for their reliance on notice-and-takedown procedures.

“Policing the YouTubes of this world for infringing content is a herculean task, one beyond all but the largest of companies. For my community, the independents, it’s a game of whack-a-mole they can only lose,” Mills said in his speech at Canadian Music Week, which was reprinted (with permission) by the Music Technology Policy blog.

“These provisions are being abused. Many of the companies taking advantage of them are not start-ups that need a break, they dwarf everyone in this room. They’ve been in business long enough to now be able to identify that content. They know what it is. They should not need that protection any more. Those provisions hobble creators, and they give those that use them an unfair competitive advantage over companies such as iTunes, Spotify, Amazon and Rdio who DO pre-licence content.”

Mills suggested that as part of any reformation of US copyright laws, the government there should look at removing the safe harbour provisions – “we are at the point at which notice and take down must become notice and stay down” – while highlighting a comparison that’s increasingly popular within the music industry in 2014, between YouTube and Spotify.

“Youtube says it’s paid out a billion dollars to music rights owners – but so has Spotify, from one thirtieth as many users. That economic discrepancy is because of the unreasonable economic advantage Youtube has over its digital service competitors because of its use of the safe harbour provisions,” said Mills.

In recent years, YouTube has regularly switched between friend or foe for the music industry, depending on who you’re talking to. Beggars Group is notably on the offensive in 2014 though: in April, its head of digital Simon Wheeler was equally critical: “If YouTube launches a subscription service and it eats Spotify and Rdio, you’ll look back at these times as great days. They want to eat all the other music services and our business. That’s their plan,” he told a MusicTank event in London.

See also Merlin boss Charles Caldas’ recent public criticism for more evidence of key figures in the independent scene speaking out amid the negotiating process for YouTube’s long-rumoured subscription music service. It will be interesting to see if YouTube tackles this unrest publicly, as Google has sometimes done with the debate over piracy and search results.

As an ill-tempered Midem (at least, whenever Google or YouTube was mentioned) showed, there is genuinely bad feeling in parts of the music industry towards both entities.

Yet the flipside to this remains YouTube’s potential as a music platform: positive (albeit still wary) views from an indie panel at Midem, and a more recent indie panel at AIM’s Music Connected where pretty much every speaker said YouTube was key whenever they were launching a new artists due to its sheer reach alone.

YouTube isn’t friend or foe to the music industry: it’s both, and that’s why the stakes are so high in how this relationship evolves.

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