Yesterday, YouTube announced on their Creator Blog that they were implementing new systems to let YouTubers better resolve manual Content ID claims.

These claims have long been a bane for many YouTubers, who have long expressed frustration that their videos are being manually claimed by companies even though the videos either have no unoriginal content or only an extremely small amount.

A particular target for this hatred has been Universal Music Group (UMG) with many users complaining about the company’s very aggressive claiming strategy.

YouTube hopes that the new tools and processes will help alleviate at least some of that tension. It does this by bringing the manual Content ID claim process into parity with the automated one, providing tools to not just identify exactly what is being claimed but to get the claim automatically released.

This is done through a combination of some new technical features and new requirements placed on rightsholders making claims.

To understand exactly what is going on we have to take a deep dive into the YouTube copyright system and explain just what they’ve changed and how it might affect both YouTubers and rightsholders alike.

Changing Content ID… Slightly

To understand what is going on, we have to go into a bit about YouTube’s copyright system and, in particular, Content ID.

YouTube has two copyright systemsxyywzqztuzxxtwcrwsfxrzs:

  1. The Notice and Takedown System: This is the traditional system required under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) where YouTube will remove videos and content after a formal notice of copyright infringement. It’s commonly known as the “Copyright Strike” system as it’s what produces copyright strikes.
  2. Content ID: Content ID is primarily an automated matching tool that YouTube uses to detect potential infringements. Rightsholders participate in the system voluntarily because it both provides automated detection of alleged infringements and greater flexibility in handling alleged infringements.

The Content ID system is by far the largest, handling over 98% of all copyright issues on YouTube.

However, while most of the Content ID claims are automated, the system also allows rightsholders to make manual claims. This allows them to note uses of their content that they spotted but were not automatically detected by Content ID.

Though these claims, much like automated claims, do not result in copyright strikes, they can be devastating for videos as they can limit where the video is seen, demonetize the video or even remove it. To make matters worse, the manual claims have a horrible reputation among YouTubers for being inaccurate or for claiming 100% of a video’s revenue over a few seconds of background music.

YouTubers, however, were often powerless against these claims. Though they are able to dispute them, if the claimant didn’t release the claim they would have to appeal it and risk getting a copyright strike against their account. A copyright strike can limit what an account can upload, impact monetization and, if three are accrued in a short period of time, can lead to account termination.

This is in stark contrast to automated Content ID claims, which can be automatically released if the YouTuber uses on-site tools to edit out or otherwise remove the alleged infringing material. That was not possible with manual Content ID claims.

That, in turn, is the big change, the introduction of tools to automatically release such claims. However, it does come with new requirements for rightsholders and may result in other changes in the YouTube copyright ecosystem.

A Minor Change with Major Implications

The change YouTube is making isn’t particularly ground-breaking, it’s been available on automated Content ID claims for some time, but it may cause a shift in how copyright is handled on the site.

The changes are basically two-fold:

  1. Copyright Owners Must Provide Timestamps: Previously, rightsholders were not obligated to provide timestamps with their filing. This meant that a 2-hour livestream that had a 20-second clip of a song could be claimed in total with no easy way for the uploader to edit out or replace the content.
  2. Editing Tools Now Automatically Release Manual Claims: With the first part, the editing tools provided by YouTube can be used to remove the allegedly infringing portion and automatically release the claim. This can be done by either muting the sound, replacing it with another (licensed) work or cutting the section out entirely.

Basically, this brings manual Content ID claims up to parity with automated ones. Automated ones always had timestamps and the claims have long been able to be released by editing out the portion involved. The new guidelines simply bring that to manual claims.

However, this does come at a price. Rightsholders, who are already voluntarily participating in the Content ID system, have to provide the timestamps and face expulsion from the program if they fail to do so.

While this is a small and reasonable step, many rightsholders are filing hundreds or thousands of claims per day. Even a small increase in workload per notice can have a major impact.

That, in turn, can make the Content ID system less attractive. Though it’s unlikely major rightsholders will turn away from Content ID and the revenue it provides, it’s worth noting that the copyright complaint (DMCA takedown) form on YouTube does not require timestamps currently.

The last thing YouTube (and YouTubers) want is Content ID claims to be converted into DMCA takedown notices. That just results in more work from YouTube and more copyright strikes for everyone else.

Though there are, on paper, consequences for filing a false DMCA takedown notice, court cases have whittled those protections to next to nothing in practical application. In short, as long as the filer can legitimately claim to have believed the work was infringing, it doesn’t truly matter if it was or not. Furthermore, proving someone acted in bad faith is very difficult.

To be clear, it’s highly unlikely that YouTube made this major change without working with and getting approval from the major rightsholders that participate in Content ID. The problem is that this all fits in a much larger universe, of which this change is only a small piece.

The Bigger Picture

Right now, YouTube is in a delicate place when it comes to copyright. It needs good relationships with movie and record studios not just to avoid a tidal wave of DMCA notices, but to offer services like YouTube Music and YouTube TV.

That became even more urgent in March with the passage of the EU Copyright Reform Bill, which included Article 17 (previously Article 13). That article put a requirement on sites like YouTube to set up automated systems to prevent the reupload of copyright infringing material.

Up until that moment, Content ID was a purely voluntary system. Rightsholders joined it because they felt it was better for them. YouTube held all of the cards and could decide who would be allowed to participate and under what terms. Once the new copyright reform is implemented, it will become a requirement for YouTube, not an olive branch to rightsholders.

This means, fairly shortly, if rightsholders feel that Content ID is a raw deal they have an alternative. They no longer need to play within YouTube’s garden in order to get the major benefits of Content ID.

Of course, at the same time YouTube needs to foster good relationships with rightsholders, it has to do the same with its users and original uploaders. Regular users still upload the vast majority of its content and are very much the backbone of the site.

A move like this is seen as trying to alleviate a major paint point for users at a slight expense to rightsholders. However, it doesn’t really do either. Rightsholders can always pull out of Content ID and use the DMCA process and users may not get the benefit they hope.

After all, there are many cases where a YouTube video has a copyright claim but the content can’t be reasonably edited out, even if the use is a fair use. Reviews are a major example where lots of short 5-10 second clips might be shown, claimed manually and, though a likely fair use, can’t be easily edited out and keep the video intact.

While this will fix certain issues with the manual copyright claim system for users, it won’t fix all of them. This is, at most, a step to fixing user concerns but, given the precarious balance, it’s difficult to see what other steps they can and will take.

YouTube has said in a tweet that there is more to come when it comes to copyright. All that we can do is wait and see what it is.

Bottom Line

When it comes to copyright, YouTube is in a tough position and it’s about to get a lot more difficult. Musicians and record labels have long been complaining about the value gap between YouTube and other streaming services when it comes to per-stream royalties, filmmakers are upset that piracy still seems to be rampant on YouTube in spite of Content ID and users are bitter about the current copyright system, which often results in unpredictable and unwarranted claims.

No one is happy but no one is unhappy enough to take their ball and go home.

It’s the worst kind of balance, but it’s one that YouTube has to preserve. At the same time the company was revamping its manual claims policy to make it easier for users to have them lifted, YouTube was finally taking action against stream-ripping sites by blocking their access to the service.

Stream rippers allow users to download music and other audio from YouTube videos and have been a bane for record labels. Rightsholders have long deplored YouTube to step in and block them but YouTube has not done so.

It is not likely a coincidence the same day YouTube implements this new policy is also the same day it starts blocking stream-rippers.

YouTube has a balance to keep and this move is just part of it. Expect to see a lot more in this space over the next two years as YouTube gets ready for the new EU Copyright Directive and the changes it brings.

It’s going to be an interesting, if tumultuous, time for YouTube and its users.

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