March 25, 2011 at 10:49 am

How Youtube Radio Disappeared from the iTunes App Store

Youtube Radio BrowserYoutube Radio, a popular music listening app for Android and iPhone, disappeared abruptly from the iTunes Store earlier this month.

The app’s swift removal caught its Taiwan-based developer, Atomax, by surprise. The company was unaware that its flagship app, which grabs audio from Google’s YouTube to create an on-demand music player, violated YouTube’s Terms of Service prohibiting clients from stripping video from selected content, among other things.

This seemed to be an open-and-shut episode in YouTube’s ongoing effort to police the use of its videos. Only this time, Evolver.fm’s reportage appears to have triggered the takedown.

We first dug into Youtube Radio ($1) in late February, when the app — released about a month previously — ascended iTunes’ “most popular” charts. Using YouTube’s popular Data API (application programming interface), the app lets iOS users comb through the site’s treasure trove of video, saving the audio tracks to playlists for later listening. This playlisting feature, central to the app’s appeal, operates similarly to that of Grooveshark or Spotify. The result is a fairly reliable and on-demand, well, “YouTube radio.”

Evolver.fm asked YouTube’s API managers for comment, because the popular app appeared to violate its terms of service, who said they would investigate (sorry, Atomax, but we had to ask). Days later, the app was removed from iTunes.

Youtube Radio Playlist AdditionYouTube refused to furnish a statement regarding the removal, but Atomax speculated that YouTube ordered Apple to remove the app. (Apple, which enjoys a prolific [iTunes link] relationship with YouTube-centric apps, and which partnered with YouTube on the iPhone, would seem to have little incentive to resist such a request).

Practically overnight, our coverage of the app turned from review to obituary.

While Youtube Radio was still live in iTunes, Atomax developer Steven Lee said via email that he built it to enhance, not detract from, YouTube’s music offerings, and that it operated within the company’s guidelines.

“We want people to find talented artists they are willing to share,” asserted Lee. “In my view, I am improving both YouTube and iPhone with this app … I am sure that we follow the rules of YouTube.”

They do follow some. The app, which remains available for free on the official Android Market, complies with some of YouTube’s more widely recognizable API violations, such as obeying content owners’ restrictions on external embedding. For instance, videos from Vevo won’t play in the app.

Still, YouTube’s Content ID system takes time to comb through the endless barrage of music uploaded daily to the site in order to figure out what to do with them. Determined Youtube Radio users can often find what they are looking for (or at least a live version of it).

In addition to issues surrounding the isolating and playlisting of YouTube audio, Lee said Google cited Atomax for including “Youtube” in its product name, which he pointed out is a fairly common practice among developers who access YouTube APIs.

Youtube Radio Playlist Display“There are so many apps [that] violate the rule,” claims Lee. On this score, he is certainly correct. YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley even offered a job to the developer of one such (web) app, YouTube Instant. While it is unclear how YouTube determines which apparently-offending apps get a free pass, its handling of Youtube Radio highlights a willingness to employ the elasticity of the API’s Terms of Service to play favorites of some kind.

Before its app was dropped, Atomax stood among a vast array of companies building apps on top of YouTube’s powerful API, including prominent players such as Casio, Electronic Arts Inc., and Friendster. In total, YouTube services 554 other niche mobile mashups according to Programmable Web, making it the fourth-most-used set of APIs behind the microblogging service Twitter (557), photo-sharing tool Flickr (568), and geo-mapping behemoth Google Maps (2,200).

With 700 billion video playbacks last year alone — much of it music or music-related –YouTube is the obvious choice for any developer looking to avoid sky-high licensing fees while including music. But, while YouTube encourages app makers to cut a profit using their API, developers have cause to be wary. The Terms of Service covers all sorts of uses — and when the axe falls, it falls quickly and often after an app has become popular, as Youtube Radio developer Atomax discovered.

“It’s a smash on my face,” Lee lamented.

Since its release in January, Youtube Radio rarely fell out of the iTunes Store’s top 15 grossing music apps in his native Taiwan. The app’s global popularity was growing steadily as well, cracking the top 50 in over 25 countries.

YouTube's ToS ProhibitionsLee promised a battle after Youtube Radio was dropped from iTunes, but after two weeks of unsuccessful appeals to the online video giant, Atomax acquiesced. “We [have] decided not to fight,” said Lee, citing a costly — and likely fruitless — legal battle as its biggest deterrent. (After all, the app, which many users still have installed, clearly violates YouTube’s terms.) Atomax plans to salvage whatever momentum it can by “modify[ing] the app to fit the rule.”

As they say, if you can’t beat them, join them.

In the end, Evolver.fm’s inadvertent role in the deletion of Youtube Radio from the Apple iTunes app store raises a broader question about what a colossus YouTube has become. How could we, while reviewing an app that had been available for over a month, alert the world’s fourth most popular website that one of the most prominent music apps in iTunes was violating its terms ? Interesting.

We should also point out that users of the older, less-compliant version are not completely out of luck. iPhone users who paid a dollar for the app (or snagged it for free before its price markup) can still enjoy a fully-functioning product — for now, anyway.

Meanwhile, Youtube Radio is survived on iTunes by its non-musical Atomax brethren, the QR-code contact information app BizQard and this terse message where Radio Youtube used to be.

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    What the hell was happening in there!!..