YouTube’s Copyright Crackdown: Everything You Need To Know

YouTube’s Copyright Crackdown: Everything You Need To Know

We’re in the second week of a YouTube copyright enforcement crackdown whose most visible effects have been on the video gaming community. Each day turns up a new example of a video getting thrown in YouTube jail on a ridiculous technicality. The situation seems to defy common sense, but we’ll try to explain it in common language, anyway.

We’ve created this Q&A — though, really, it’s me talking to myself — to try to answer all of your questions based on what we know and what has been reported so far. Bear in mind it remains a fluid situation and some of its actors have different perspectives on what’s going on and who is to blame. We’ve tried to tackle this from the perspective of the average video gamer — not a lawyer, not a “rightsholder,” not a video uploader, just someone who enjoys the unbelievable diversity of video game content on YouTube and is worried that this foofaraw threatens that variety in the future.

So, what’s going on?

About a week ago, a bunch of YouTubers — some of them with large followings — started getting hit with “content ID match” notices. This means something in their video is claimed as copyrighted work by someone else. These matches are automatically generated by YouTube, which scans its vast library of uploaded content for material claimed as copyrighted by someone else.

Well, what kind of videos are getting claimed?

That’s the trouble. Folks are posting reviews of video games using captured gameplay footage, and often featuring the games’ soundtracks and ambient noises. So it’s not that the video itself is, literally and in its entirety, claimed to be the work of someone else. It’s that some component within it — video or audio — is. It could also be a trailer used in a review or a popular song that happens to be in a game’s soundtrack. The radio stations that play in the Grand Theft Auto series are a perfect example.

How are they doing that? Do they have an army of lawyers who do nothing but scan YouTube?

No, this process is handled largely by automation, which is a big part of the problem, and I’ll get into that later. But what it means is this: A copyright holder uploads his or her material to YouTube and says “I own this,” and that’s verified somehow. It then goes into a huge database and when a video is uploaded, YouTube at some point goes through it and if a segment of audio or video matches that of a copyrighted work, YouTube’s bot flags the video and then sends the owner a message that identifies who is making the infringement claim. I don’t know exactly how the scanning of video and audio works but, then, I don’t know how Google’s image search works exactly, and Google owns YouTube.

So, does that mean the videos taken down? Are these channels banned? Is someone getting sued?

No, no, and no. This really has an effect only if the YouTube channel or user has opted in to sell ads on his or her videos. The video in most cases remains alive and viewable on YouTube, but if it was serving ads, the money it earns going forward is redirected to the entity making the copyright claim against the video. If they release that claim, then the advertising money will revert back to the original video uploader. But as long as the claim is unresolved, the money either goes to the claimaint or is otherwise in limbo.

OK, wait, I thought publishers were using this “content claim” stuff to get negative video reviews taken down.

That’s a common suspicion and some claims have been filed on behalf of video game publishers, or channels owned by them. For example, the game critic and YouTube personality Angry Joe went ballistic when he found a claim lodged against a Tomb Raider interview — an interview — by Tomb Raider itself (its YouTube channel, basically). The interview was entirely benign though. And in any case, these claims are being generated by a robot, which isn’t scanning for editorial tone or criticism, but simply what content is being used. Who knows why Angry Joe ran into something Tomb Raider claimed, but he did use trailer and E3 2012 presentation footage intercut with the video segments. Maybe that’s what set things off.

What’s Angry Joe doing about that?

You’d have to ask him, but when these claims are filed, a channel can dispute them — but it’s still incumbent on the claimant to either release the claim or argue the case further. If they do nothing, it still takes 30 days for this mediation window to close and for the video to get clean and resume generating revenue for the guy who uploaded it.

Christ, what a headache. Is this a new thing?

No. Content ID matching has been around for a while. Hell, it’s happened to me. For example, there’s this video, which I send to people who make me mad on the Internet.

Now, that is plainly Breaking Bad, a critically acclaimed television series I did not create. Sony Pictures owns the rights to it. It’s not the entirety of episode 13 from the show’s fourth season. It’s a 90-second clip from it. But that’s more than YouTube’s database needs to see to know I’ve taken something I have no right to rebroadcast or republish and put it on their system. It doesn’t really matter to me, though, as I’m not selling ads on it. But this is an example of the content match in action: The video’s still up, still viewable, I’m not being sued and my channel hasn’t been banned.

So why are we hearing about it now?

Well, I’m not represented by a multi-channel network, or MCN. An MCN is something like Machinima. They have a bunch of affiliates (sometimes in the thousands) who create their own content, and their relationship with the MCN gives them promotional reach and other benefits that drive traffic to their channel. What’s kicking up the fuss is that YouTubers who are part of these MCNs weren’t exposed to this kind of scanning before, which was a big, big reason to sign a contract with one if they wanted you. Essentially the MCNs were vouching for their affiliates. In the past week, YouTube said no more, and set up two classes for MCNs to use with regards to their channels: “Managed,” which is a kind of protected status these networks would give only to their biggest traffic generators, and “affiliates,” which is everyone else.

Why’d YouTube start scanning these MCN guys all of a sudden?

The answer depends on who you talk to. Some channels caught in these YouTube sweeps blame the MCNs, alleging they were abusing the system and YouTube had to move to stop that. Their perspective: MCNs would sign up channels with the promise that your content wouldn’t get scanned, take their cut of your ad revenue, and then do basically nothing. A large network gobbling up channels on promises of blanket protection can make a lot of money at that kind of scale. Their size has an effect on the rest of YouTube’s ecosystem, too, and if MCNs have disproportionate power over who and what gets seen, YouTube would have an interest in rebalancing that.

For MCNs, we’ve tried like hell to get them to tell us how they see it, and they’ve not been too chatty. We can only assume they see it differently. (One, to us, said that blaming MCNs is “comically short-sighted” though they never got back with us to elaborate as to why.) Polaris, one of the larger MCNs (it’s home to TotalBiscuit, Angry Joe, and other big names in video gaming videos) declined our request for comment. They look bad because they’re said to be holding their affiliates to their contract terms even though the reasons for signing up have now changed dramatically.

Fine, sounds like they’ve got some couples therapy to go to. What does this mean to me, the gamer?

For now, little. As we said, these videos — walkthroughs, reviews, lets-play — are all still up and running. If you yourself create videos, and especially if you’re not “monetizing” them (that is, allowing Google to run ads on them for a cut of money based on its traffic), you probably have very little to worry about. This isn’t really like what everyone feared when SOPA was debated in 2012, or Nintendo’s crackdown on lets-play videos back in the spring. In fact, some games publishers — Deep Silver (Saints Row, Dead Island) in particular — are publicly supporting gamers and channel uploaders and offering their support in resolving these claims.

Is this really worth the trouble? How much do these YouTubers make in ads, anyway?

One guy told us he expects to make about $US100, net, off 50,000 views. That’s after everyone takes their cut — YouTube, his MCN, etc. Others’ mileage may vary, depending on their contracts and their viewership. But some channels with a million or more subscribers and millions of views are able to make this a full-time gig. It takes a lot of work, but it’s doable.

What’s YouTube had to say for itself about this?

Their bedside manner is, well, lacking. Last week, YouTube put out a statement full of corporate vocabulary no one uses in real life. “Nothing illustrates the incredible growth and evolution of YouTube better than the enterprise class of businesses being built on the platform today,” it said, as if a real human being gives a damn about YouTube’s incredible enterprise-class growth.

“We recently enabled Content ID scanning on channels identified as affiliates of MCNs,” YouTube said. “This has resulted in new copyright claims for some users, based on policies set by the relevant content owners. As ever, channel owners can easily dispute Content ID claims if they believe those claims are invalid.”

Yeah. I can easily eat ice cream, too, but I can’t easily eat 5 gallons of it at a time, which is what some MCN affiliates had to do when they were overrun with dozens of claims, some of them on their most popular videos.

Then yesterday, YouTube sent an email to channel owners — the guys getting hit by these claims — that more or less said “deal with it.” It told channel owners how to dispute these claims while reminding them that, even if they didn’t recognise the claimant, it didn’t mean that claim was illegitimate or could be ignored. A big protip: Just turn off the game’s soundtrack in future videos, as it seems to be the source of a lot of third party claims.

But that’s bullshit! If someone sells or allows a song to be used in a video game, and then someone shows a video of that video game, with that song playing, how is that an unauthorised use?

Great question and today, the CEO of the largest multi-channel network for independent musicians, says you’re right. “If that music has been specifically licensed to that game, or somebody paid or commissioned to create music for that game, absolutely you’re right,” said Brandon Martinez, CEO of INDMUSIC, which has been listed as a claimant against a bunch of flagged games, largely because it represents the creators of some video game soundtracks. INDMUSIC was caught off guard by this crackdown, too, and was unaware of all of these claims being generated on its behalf. Again, the robot is flagging the song regardless of the surrounding context. The claim still has to be resolved by the rightsholder or manager, and that takes time.

So what are they doing about it?

Dealing with a lot of heat through social media, for starters, but also trying to work with channel owners and another business, TuneCore, which handles publishing for independent musicians (INDMUSIC handles the YouTube end of things for TuneCore and its artists.) “The problem is we didn’t know,” Martinez said. “There was literally no information provided to publishers and distributors. There was this massive attack and outrage, as the Internet tends to do, but there was only so much we could do with little to no information. We didn’t even know who some of these people were,” in claims made on INDMUSIC’s behalf, Martinez said.

I heard this guy made a video game, and he got flagged by YouTube because someone else put a claim on the video of the game he made. Of the game he made! That’s fucked up!

It sure is! And it illustrates the core of the problem here, which is copyright management by robot. On one hand, YouTube’s bot is in no way equipped to make a reasoned judgment whether some piece of content is being properly used in a video created by a third-party. It only knows that it was used. And that’s a bazooka-versus-cockroaches solution to a big problem. On the other hand, given the sheer size of YouTube’s operation and the millions, if not billions, of hours of footage hosted there, there’s no way a live human could scan everything — yep, that’s Kanye and Rihanna singing “All of the Lights” in NBA 2K14′s soundtrack, and it belongs there — and have YouTube be the timely, incredibly diverse video landscape it is.

So what’s gonna happen in the long run?

The rightsholders and the channels and the MCNs will ultimately figure out these claims — they’re more in the same boat than they are at each other’s throats, I think. This could, however, threaten the current model of MCNs and channel affiliates, because if the biggest benefit to aligning with an MCN is removed — unless you’re a big, big dog — then channels like Machinima and Maker Studios could see wholesale numbers defecting once their contracts are up. Or they could see smaller fish just up and quitting because everything they do ends up being flagged for some reason. That affects the diversity of content you, the gamer, can consume from YouTube, and seems to skew things toward the big players who do rate the protection from YouTube’s all-seeing copyright hall monitor.

That’s all intriguing, but what I really want is a bad guy. I want someone to blame, dammit!

Blame copyright law? I don’t know. The most infuriating aspect of this, for me too, is the diffusion of accountability here. When people are told they are violating a law or a rule, they expect to be able to confront or reason with the enforcer of that rule or the person they’ve wronged, however unwittingly. With a YouTube scanning program making these calls on behalf of others, who sometimes aren’t aware of the claims made in their name, it can be very hard to get someone on the line to hash things out. And in a corporate culture where no one says anything unless it makes them look good, the chance to get answers is even lower.

Rare is the entity that says “Yep, we screwed up,” as network Scale Lab did yesterday when it acknowledged it mistakenly claimed a bunch of video that had matches in other channels’ walkthroughs and lets-plays. But even if Scale Lab admirably took responsibility for that mistake, it’s still not the root of the problem. It’s a fucking robot that’s creating this problem, basically, and good luck chewing out lines of code. The robot is just doing its job. And for rightsholders who are less scrupulous than Scale Lab, the robot can be a convenient scapegoat. “Hey bro, sorry about that, it’s YouTube’s fault,” says rightsholder A to channel B, while still collecting money from uncontested claims on videos made by channels C and D. Basically, the thing you can rightly blame in one instance can be legitimately blameless in another.

Well. This really made my head hurt and I’m actually unhappier now than I was before I started reading.

Join the club. Let’s go play some video games to get our minds off this shit. I’m dudemanbestbro1 on Xbox Live.

To contact the author of this post, write to or find him on Twitter @owengood.

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