The stories have become incredibly common.
Last week, it was YouTuber Mark Fitzpatrick, better known as Totally Not Mark, who faced some 150 copyright claims on his channel from Toei Animation. Fitzpatrick, a prolific reviewer of anime, had gone from running a successful channel reviewing anime to, according to his video, finding himself without revenue and facing the loss of three years of his work.
In a recent video, he indicated that he no longer had the energy to keep fighting this battle. He said he will reevaluate his channel in the new year.
Before that, it was former Twitch Streamer Ludwig Ahgren. A major “get” for YouTube, Ahgren was lured away from Twitch by YouTube only to have one of his first streams shuttered over an alleged copyright issue.
According to YouTube’s Copyright Transparency Report, the site receives more than 4 million copyright claims every day. While the vast majority are legitimate and handled well, with numbers that gigantic even a fraction of a percent leads to millions of problem cases per year.
This has put YouTubers in a bind. As we discussed back in September, the bots of YouTube have largely supplanted copyright law on the site. Rules around fair use, notice and takedown and so forth are replaced by bots that are incapable of understanding the nuances of the law itself.
To be clear, YouTube itself is also in a bind here, there is no way YouTube could process even a fraction of these claims without the reliance on bots. However, this creates something of a stalemate. YouTubers routinely find themselves held accountable not to the law, but to the standards of Content ID.
However, the rules of Content ID aren’t consistent. They are constantly shifting as the whims of rightsholders change, the technology behind the tool improves and YouTube’s own community guidelines are updated.
Without any kind of stability, YouTubers are constantly wondering what tomorrow will bring and that is not an environment that is healthy for creators.
(Note: None of this is to say that Fitzpatrick’s work nor was lawful or unlawful, I’m not familiar enough with his work to even offer a guess. The issue, as I see it, is that the “problem” wasn’t identified until after he’d sunk years worth of work into his channel.)
A Fool’s Errand
To put it simply, if you are a creator on YouTube and your channel relies in any way on unlicensed third-party content, your position is not safe. It doesn’t matter if you’re running a review channel, crafting careful parodies or making any other use that is likely legal, your work is still highly vulnerable.
As with Fitzpatrick, it’s entirely possible that you will work for years, assume that your work is both legal and ethical in nature, and still have the rug pulled out from underneath you. In short, if you’re a creator on YouTube that relies on outside content, you’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop.
That shoe could be anything. A key rightsholder could change their approach, Content ID could change how it detects duplicate content or YouTube may simply decide it doesn’t want videos like yours on the site. Even if it doesn’t remove it, YouTube can refuse to monetize it, bury it in the algorithm or sabotage your channel in a myriad of other ways.
Many of these dangers are inherent when you build your castle in another person’s kingdom. However, with YouTube the dangers get greatly amplified when you add their copyright processes into the mix.
However, it’s also hard to fully blame YouTube. The site is a victim of its own growth. Like Amazon and Facebook, the site has become too big to police, and it requires automated tools to even make a dent in the massive abuse it sees.
As such, there’s no real way to fix YouTube from within YouTube. Instead, we need to rethink YouTube and video streaming broadly.
The Internet of Old
Back when I first launched Plagiarism Today in 2005, the internet was a very different place. If you wanted a homestead on the internet, you had to largely carve one out for yourself. Sure, there were sites that offered free and (relatively) easy home pages, but those were never taken very seriously.
Since then, the internet has become much more consolidated. Social media silos like Twitter, Facebook and TikTok dominate the landscape. Writers often get their start on Medium or Tumblr, tapping into a built-in audience, and photographers depend upon Instagram, even when they hate its policies.
In the land of video, YouTube has been the point of centralization. It’s become the place where careers are made and lost. If you want to get into video, YouTube is not optional. You HAVE to be on it, or you’re invisible.
But what we need isn’t a YouTube competitor. Any competitor of adequate size would simply run into the same problems. What we need is a competing idea.
What we need is a new approach. We need a way for aspiring video content creators to have a way to spin up their own video streaming service the same way an author can spin up a blog or a podcaster and spin up a podcasting site.
There are obvious problems with this. The resources both in terms of computational, storage and bandwidth, are much higher for video than other kinds of content. Also, there would be concerns of potential piracy and copyright enforcement.
However, pirate CDNs are already a thing. If you want to create a pirate streaming service, it’s already fairly easy to do so. The problem is that there is no similar solution for legitimate creators.
Some creators have had some success with this model. For example, Escapist Magazine still has a YouTube channel, but gives strong preference to the video on its own site. Cinemassacre did something similar with their 2021 Monster Madness, even if it didn’t get off to a glorious start, it still went well overall.
The goal isn’t to replace YouTube, as its built-in audience will likely keep it relevant for a long, long time to come, but to offer an alternative. Right now, that is something that creators are sorely lacking.
One fact is clear, the current system is not tenable for many creators. YouTube has become both too big to effectively police and too important to fail. As rare as major failures are, at YouTube’s site that still impacts thousands, if not millions of creators per year.
There’s no easy answer here. YouTube can tweak its systems and policies, but the practical reality of YouTube’s situation remains. Creators need a legitimate alternative to YouTube and that solution can’t look like YouTube does today.
Right now, if you’re building a career on YouTube that is in any way based on other people’s work, no matter how legal or ethical that work is, you are at risk.
Without a real alternative, both ideologically and practically, that tenuousness will never change, and we’ll keep hearing more and more stories like Fitzpatrick’s.
That fact should give anyone posting to YouTube pause to think.