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Netflix experiments with crowd-sourced captioning

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Netflix (s NFLX) just launched a subtitling community project on the video captioning service Amara, formerly known as Universal Subtitles. The company is looking for a limited number of volunteers on the site, and apparently wants to try using crowd-sourced captioning with a “popular 80s cartoon and other classic TV programming,” according to information posted on the site.

A Netflix spokesperson told me that the company’s efforts on the site simply represent a test:

“Netflix is committed to accessibility and we have decided to test Amara to see if it could work for Netflix content. This is a small scale, early stage test. It is premature to discuss if we would actually use the titles resulting from this test or any future use of Amara.”

Netflix’s captioning community on Amara currently only features one video, which according to information provided on the site represents “an example of Netflix SDH (Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing) Guidelines in action.”

Netflix is known as a company that is obsessed with testing. That being said, a service like Amara could represent a significant opportunity for Netflix. The company currently offers close to 50,000 movies and TV show episodes in the U.S., and has been expanding to countries where customers speak French, Spanish and Portuguese over the last few months. Netflix is slated to announce another international expansion soon, which could add another language to its roster.

Crowd-sourced captioning and subtitle translation could help to provide closed captions in all of these markets, and alleviate the pressure it’s been facing from deaf and hard-of-hearing advocates. Netflix was sued for not providing captions for all of its videos a year ago, and a judge allowed the lawsuit to proceed last month.

Amara originally launched as Universal Subtitles, and allows users to transcribe videos with a simple online editor. The site has been used by media organizations like Al Jazeera and the PBS NewsHour as well as the popular education site Khan Academy to crowd-source captioning and translation. I’ve been told by the Amara folks that its community has now subtitled more than 100,000 videos total.

8 Responses to “Netflix experiments with crowd-sourced captioning”

  1. Hi Sean,

    I’m not sure Netflix intends to use the Amara player: more likely, they’ll just have the volunteers make the captions on Amara, then download them and re-use them in its own player. And how captions appear in that will depend on how it is configured or configurable by the user: see e.g. how users can configure closed captions on YouTube. (Hopefully the same possibility is available on the Netflix player).
    I.e. how captions appear depends on the player, not on the CC file playing in it. True, now Amara enables some formatting of this file: line breaks, alignment, bold and italics, but nothing concerning size, color and background.

  2. Don’t know about others; Personally, to have opaque background occupying 1/3 of screen just for captions doesn’t sit well with me.

    I’m a captions user (using captions 24/7) and would like to make sure captions doesn’t “rob” the “visual experience” of the content with artist of filming.

    I would recommend to explore some kind of “traditional” closed captions (sparingly opaque background, popping up when needed) and/or open captions (shadowed colored text) to preserve the original intent of viewing pleasure of the video/film.

  3. omillais

    Fans of film, especially anime, have been creating and trading unofficial subtitles among themselves for ages, for various reasons, usually to work around the lack of adequate subtitles provided by the studios. There are many websites devoted to providing fan-created subtitles and fostering community around them. The studios bristle at the whole enterprise and say that putting subtitles online is copyright infringement, and they don’t hesitate to exercise their options in stopping it. TorrentFreak recently reported on a criminal copyright infringement conviction that was handed down against a Norwegian man who operated a non-profit website that offered subtitles online. So if having subtitles online is in fact copyright infringement, then isn’t Netflix risking lawsuits worse than whatever the penalty is for ADA violations? Or do they have permission from the studios?

  4. Reblogged this on Tiny Work and commented:
    Once again, the intersection of crowdsourcing and everyday life produces game-changing ideas. As long as these are properly verified, I think crowdsourced captions will help out Netflix immensely.

  5. Yet another example of open-sourcing getting massive projects done. Whether or not this project actually works depends on how well they filter the trolls out. Aside from the purposefully false subtitles, there are probably little to no down sides of open-sourcing subtitles for all languages.

  6. Reblogged this on #Hashtag – Thoughts on Law, Technology, the Internet, and Social Media and commented:
    Netflix experiments with crowd-sourced captioning.
    Netflix wants your help – and we are not talking about its troubled stock: The company is looking for volunteers to join its crowdsourced subtitling community. It’s all just an experiment for now, but it could one day become a massively crowdsourced closed captioning operation.