YouTube’s Copyright Policy – An Explanation

Ed. Note: This post by Ashwin Murthy is a part of the TLF Editorial Board Test 2016.

Digital media has become the norm of the modern world and in the field no website is as dominant as YouTube. YouTube, currently a Google subsidiary, controls the market when it comes to video sharing, outpacing the other video-sharing providers by millions of views and users. YouTube presently has more than a billion users and has even allowed the growth of a new career in YouTube personalities, the most famous being PewDiePie. As a natural product of being a video sharing service, multiple videos use content that is copyright protected.

To help protect these companies and their copyright protections, YouTube has created a system called Content ID. This system allows copyright owners to easily identify their content on another person’s or channel’s videos and take action against the same. A database of files and content is submitted to YouTube by the content owners. When a video is uploaded to YouTube, it is scanned against the database. If a match is detected, a Content ID claim is raised and the owners of the content that has been copied are informed. They then have the option to do one of four things:

  • Mute the audio that is copied/matching
  • Block the entire video from being viewed
  • Track the number of views
  • Monetize the video by running ads

Monetizing the video is the most common measure that the content owners take, one that bears very little publicity and negativity associated with it and is also the most profitable. The choice between sharing the revenue generated from these ads with the uploader is up to the content owner. Not everyone is given this Content ID privilege – only copyright owners who meet specific criteria are allotted the same.

More serious however is when the copyright owners submit an official legal copyright infringement notification, instead of merely accepting Content ID actions. This notification can be submitted through a very simple form, the uploaded content is removed keeping in line with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). This will then place a strike upon the uploader, which initially has no penalty apart from removing the uploaded video. If the live stream or archived live stream is removed for copyright, then the uploader’s access to live streaming will be restricted for 90 days. Three strikes however will cause the account to be permanently banned, deletion of all videos from the account and a ban from creating an account on YouTube. Strikes can be removed by waiting three months and completing the Copyright School (a ‘corrective’ test and series of instructions on the YouTube site), getting a retraction from the issuer or submitting a counter notification, disputing the challenge.

Certain content, even if using copyright protected works, may be allowed if it is ‘fair use’. YouTube has certain fair use guidelines, which speak of which content would and would not be protected by fair use depending on certain characteristics including the amount and substantiality of the work used in comparison to the entire work as a whole. Thus if 90% of the content of a video uploaded is of a music video, such as Ezra Furman’s song ‘Restless Year’, then it would not be protected by fair use and would be liable for takedown. However, if a part of the music video is used to create content on something original, such as a discussion of emerging trends of fashion, it would be protected and no claim would be allowed. Excerpts used verbatim for the purposes of criticism, teaching, reviewing or proving an analytic point are all part of fair use.

In theory this measure is a unilaterally positive measure, however in practice certain issues have been raised. This quasi-legal system allows for an easy way for certain companies and individuals to easily make money without getting involved in lawsuits or disputes, simply through the filling of a single form. Further, there is no penalty for filing a false claim. It essentially becomes an automated action, where a claim is made with only potential benefit and no downside. The action by YouTube is first taken, and only after this can the uploader fight for a refraction/counter claim. This allows for gross abuses of the system, the most publicised being of film critic Doug Walker on his YouTube channel ‘Channel Awesome’. His review of the movie ‘My Neighbour Totoro’, ironically a recommendation and in complete fair use, was claimed against and he was hit with a copyright strike. His channel was hit with massive restrictions from YouTube and ad revenue was stripped from every video he uploaded. The redressal systems neither worked nor were easily accessible, and only after he made a video that got wide attention did YouTube take it seriously.           YouTube musician Miracle of Sound was hit with copyright claims against the music he created for his own channel and others. Game critic Jim Sterling, as explained in his video on the issue (explicit language) was forced into a rather innovative action – he used footage from multiple games published by companies like Konami, Nintendo and Rockstar in a single video, causing them all to raise Content ID claims on the video which effectively nullified the claims to a point where no action at all could be taken. This pointed to the critics an example of how easy the system had become to abuse and game for only potential gains.

This led to the creation of the movement #WTFU (Where’s The Fair Use) by Doug Walker and supported by multiple high profile YouTubers calling YouTube and Google to take action and change the existing policies towards fair use and copyrights. YouTube responded, stating that they would take action to make a change, however change is yet to be seen. YouTube has to balance a fine line between allowing for creative content and protection of copyrights and intellectual property. However, it has become evident that their algorithms for discovering this content as well as their mechanisms for dealing with copyright issues are outdated, biased towards the issuing party and difficult to redress if wrong. Change is necessary to create a platform that can better deal with the immense number of users that YouTube possesses and until it arrives, YouTubers like Channel Awesome and Jim Sterling will actively fight against the blatant issues that exist within the system.

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