The Copyright Frustrations of a YouTuber

YouTube LogoMy day job is that of a copyright and plagiarism consultant where I help people with a variety of issues related to content use, licensing and protection. It’s a personal passion that I was able to parlay into a reasonably successful career.

However, by night I’m a horror movie buff with a particularly strong love for the low-budget, b-grade flavor of cinema. So, in honor of that, my signficant other, Crystal, and I started a movie review series named Garbage Horror, where we review, parody and talk about the best and worst of the genre. It’s all meant to be just as silly and cheesy as the movies we review.

But being a copyright supporter and someone who thinks about these issues a great deal, we took the copyright issues very seriously, thinking about them literally from day one of the project.

Unfortunately, now that we’re returning from hiatus on the project (returning for season 2), it’s become obvious that those issues are far from resolved. That is, at least on YouTube.

Like many others, we’ve been frustrated when trying to use YouTube to distribute our series and, though some of it is related to the law itself, much of it is missteps by YouTube itself in these areas.

So how can YouTube fix these issues? There are several things they could do today to make things a great deal easier for creators like me.

Matched and IDed

One of the immediate problems we had was the Content ID system. I fully expected our videos to get tagged by the system because, as part of doing the movie review, we use short clips from the film (usually under 30 seconds and without sound).

Indeed, it did happen, specifically with our second review for Boy Eats Girl. The video was tagged as having content from Lionsgate Entertainment.

This made sense, Lionsgate distributes the film in the U.S. and their requests were not unreasonable, just that YouTube display ads for the company near our review.

Still, my belief was that the use of the film was a fair use so I decided to dispute the match. That part was fairly trivial, only a few clicks and a short sentence of explanation, but after two days the dispute is still pending.

YouTube Dispute

The main annoyance of the Content ID system was that it seemed to be random. There were several videos I anticipated would be matched because they used snippets of songs as well as the movie clips, but none of those were tagged.

Instead, only Boy Eats Girl and one other episode were matched using Content ID, the other episode not having any significant copyrighted content at all.

However, Content ID wasn’t the real problem we’d face. For the most part, the process was clear, easy-to-follow and didn’t really create any headaches. Monetization, however, quickly became a thorn in our side.

No Money for You

Ever since I had set up the Garbage Horror account, YouTube had been pestering me to set up monetization.

I resisted for a long time.

In addition to not being sure if our videos would be allowed, we’d made Blip.TV our primary home and were monetizing there without problems.

Still, as we started to prepare to come back from hiatus, I asked around to see if we could enable YouTube monetization. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a straight answer. Though YouTube’s agreement says that “I confirm that I own all elements of this video or that I have sufficient commercial use rights for all audio and visual elements necessary to monetize this video”, it doesn’t say anything about use of content that doesn’t require permission, such as with fair use.

Even after talking with several expert YouTubers and an attorney about the situation, I didn’t get a clear answer and the YouTube help forums weren’t much assistance.

So, after realizing other reviewers and parody artists were monetizing successfully, I decided to enable monetization on a few of my videos to see what happened. Of the first four, one of them was rejected for monetization. However, it wasn’t one of the reviews, it was an “Out of the Can” episode that included nothing but talk about the new Sherlock Holmes movies. Other than CC-licensed (and commercially available) music and two movie posters, everything was original.

I enabled it on more videos and three more were rejected including two full reviews and another “Out of the Can” without any clips (though it did include two 10-second song clips).

The results seemed almost completely random. Some videos with more copyrighted content were allowed to but some with almost none were not. I turned to the emails for an explanation, but there wasn’t one to be found.

YouTube Partner Support

In neither the emails nor the links to “Submit Documentation” was there any indication exactly what content was at issue. Was it the clips from the movie? The intro/outro music? The movie posters? Something else altogether.

But even if I knew what content was at issue, there’s no way to dispute the claims without providing documentation that I have the rights to use the content commercially. Though I can do that with the music we used in nearly all episodes, I obviously can’t do that with the review clips.

This means that there is no effective dispute process and no means for someone making a fair use of content on YouTube to monetize their efforts.

But as frustrating as that is, what’s most worrisome is the lack of clarity and the lack of certainty, always leaving even myself wondering what’s the right thing to do.

Fixing the Problem

To be clear, this is YouTube’s monetization policy. If they want to bar all use of non-commercially licensed content from it, regardless of fair use questions, then that is fine. Reviewers, parody artists and others who make fair use of content will have to monetize elsewhere (Once again, Blip.TV has been very supportive of us).

However, if that’s the policy, it needs to be clearly stated. Currently, all that’s explicitly forbidden is “remixes”, which isn’t very relevant to what we are doing.

Second, if there is a dispute over copyright, whether it involves a DMCA notice, a Content ID match or monetization dispute, there needs to be a clear indication as to what content is at issue. For some videos, there’s only one or two things that it could be but, for others, there could be dozens of potential sources of contention. Besides, with the imperfections in the matching system or the review process, there’s always a possibility that the questionable element could be almost anything (and completely wrong).

All in all, what YouTube needs to do is make clarity a priority in its copyright policies. If someone with as much experience as myself in copyright is struggling to figure out what is going on and what they need to do, then a complete layperson with no experience is going to find it much more difficult.

Bottom Line

In the end, I’m actually very glad that YouTube is doing all of this. Yes, it is a hassle for those who want to be good copyright citizens while making legitimate use of the works of others, but I certainly prefer this to the free for all that existed before the YouTube buyout. It’s better for creators of original content on YouTube as well as other copyright holders.

That being said, the fact that YouTube is going above and beyond on matters of copyright doesn’t mean that they can afford to be careless about how they do it, especially in regards to how they treat their users.

If YouTube wants to foster original creations, they need to be clear about their copyright policies and make them not just so that they can be understood, but so that they can not be misunderstood. While getting the Happy Tree Friends to help explain copyright to those who get DMCA notices is an interesting approach, it’s only a small piece of the puzzle.

Clarity and simplicity need to be key elements in every interaction regarding copyright. While copyright has a lot of gray areas you can’t easily clear up, you shouldn’t create new ones either.

For me, I’m probably going to disable monetization. Though only four of the videos were rejected, Blip.TV’s monetization policies are both clearer and more favorable. Besides, we made these reviews for fun, not to make money and laughs. We didn’t put them on YouTube with hopes of becoming millionaires.

Still, the whole ordeal woke me up to just how frustrating YouTube can be on copyright matters and it’s a lesson I will not soon forget.

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