How Hackers Turned 'TikTok' Into An Underground Streaming Platform
Move over, pandemic-afflicted theaters, HBO Max with Warner Bro's entire 2021 slate, and Netflix's plan to churn out weekly movies -- it seems TikTok-ing hackers may have found an entirely new way to tailor the movie-going experience to the, erm, very unique needs of 2021, cramming feature-length movies and TV shows into what should theoretically be 60-second social media clips.
Yep, TikTok, defined by its minute-long videos, and bizzare trends like terrorizing frat bros via cybersquatting and dunking on Morrisey, has grown into an underground streaming platform, where several users have managed to skirt the app's intellectual property guidelines -- and most notably, its seemingly innate format restrictions -- to upload films and television installments in their entirety. While some of these videos are taken down after garnering too much in-app attention, several users have managed to stay under the radar, uploading Nickelodeon's 2005 animated hit, The Spongebob Squarepants Movie ...
... and even entire episodes of the 1940's cartoon, Tom and Jerry.
So how, exactly, is this possible? TikTok blindly trusts the contents of video file's metadata, according to Morry Kolman, a video artist who recently uploaded all 71-minutes of 1960's Little Shop of Horrors -- which it should be noted is now in the Public Domain -- to the video-sharing app. In other words, when a video is posted to the social networking platform, TikTok bases whether or not the video fits within its site-wide time limits only by reading the metadata denoting the video's length, a value that can be easily manipulated by users, Motherboard explained in their coverage of the art installation.
"Because TikTok's vetting process understands the video as a file and not a film, it assumes that when it gets a new piece of content -- even though a human uploaded it -- it is receiving the work of another machine," Kolman elaborated in a post about the project on his blog. "As such, it does not bother actually watching any length of the video, because 'watching' is a foreign concept to the parties it understands to be involved. The Little Tok of Horrors will remain up as long as there is no human intervention on the part of an employee as a testament to the fact that TikTok's platform does not have the sensory ability to even comprehend that it is there. Uber owns no cars, Facebook has no newsroom, TikTok watches no videos."
TikTok may not bother to have its robots actually watch many its video offerings, but the app will listen to everything you post in a noble, unending pursuit of discovering IP violations, a lesson Kolman learned the hard way after his first "The Little Tok of Horrors" upload was removed after 12 minutes due to a relatively minute music licensing issue. "In an irony of copyright, the entire audio track of the video had been taken down because approximately a minute or so of dialogue is sampled in the song Audrey II by The Burning of Rome. While TikTok's desktop site allows you to upload more filetypes than the mobile app, a function that it drops is the ability to select an audio track to go along with the video (even it stayed, Audrey II is not discoverable in its sound search)." Way to go, TikTok copyright violation code!
Although this loophole has been regularly exploited in the past, most often in the context of a digital flex, with users creating content solely based on the notion that their video is longer TikTok's seemingly ironclad time limits ...
... editing metadata to upload feature-length films seems to be a relatively new endeavor. "The idea was to take the method and use it to do more than just make longform TikTok content," Kolman explained to Vice's tech vertical. "I wanted to make TikTok host a type of video its platform is explicitly positioned against."
While Kolman's video was ultimately removed and immortalized on YouTube, with TikTok telling Motherboard that "modifying or adapting code on our platform violates our Community Guidelines, which are designed to promote an authentic and reliable experience for everyone on TikTok," the creator maintains his project is a success. "The only way this video would be taken down is with human intervention, and that is clearly what happened," he told the outlet. "It just goes to prove the point that the way platforms process and distribute videos is disconnected from the way humans see and interact with them, and that - at least in my eyes - helps open some ground for platform resistance and artistic intervention. Put more succinctly: a human had to tell a machine I was lying. It's good to know we still have that power."
So folks, even in the midst of the digital age, it seems us mere humans still have something on those robots after all -- sneaking feature-length films on a short-form video app. Happy (legal) streaming, friends!