Analysis: YouTube’s Automated Copyright System Allows Abusers to Deny Revenue to Small Creators

by Lon Seidman | Aug 13, 2012 9:21am
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An automated system that allows copyright holders to flag their content on YouTube ran amok this week as a number of large news agencies claimed public domain NASA footage as their own, forcing the space agency’s videos offline and denying CTTechJunkie its ability to earn revenue on its coverage of the Mars rover landing.

The takedowns occurred through YouTube’s copyright identification system called Content ID. Google, YouTube’s parent company, implemented the system in response to concerns (and lawsuits) raised by the entertainment industry over YouTube users uploading copyrighted content to the site. It is able to find patterns in videos that match video or audio from major media companies and immediately have those videos pulled down. Or, they add advertisements that benefit the rightsholder.

The problem is that those in the Content ID system do not have to prove that they actually own the content, thus it allowed those companies to claim ownership of the NASA footage. Once that happened, the system automatically pulled down NASA’s own video of the landing, and six news agencies claimed they had rights to a recording produced by CTTechJunkie.com during the event.

During the time those agencies made a claim against CTTechJunkie’s content, the site was unable to earn revenue from the video plays. And while we had the right to appeal the Content ID system’s identification, those making the claim had a month to respond to our dispute. In the news business, that may as well be an eternity.

Watch Lon Talk About The Issue on the Behind the Video podcast:


A NASA spokesman told motherboard.tv that the space agency has been dealing with content flags on a monthly basis. In addition to the aggravation of videos being pulled down, advertisements have been added to NASA content, which is a violation of federal policy for social media content.

Lost Revenue

YouTube is one of the most heavily trafficked sites in the world, racking up over 180 million unique viewers in June alone according to the Internet research firm Comscore. This is lucrative territory for advertisers, and YouTube shares its revenue with both large- and small-content creators - except when content is flagged by their automated systems. Those in the Content ID system can simply take the user’s share of revenue on the video unless that user decides to appeal. And that appeal process can be intimidating.

Digital signatures are required, and a stark warning is presented to the user just before submission that “fraudulent disputes” could result in their account being terminated. The result is that many users do not know to contest the claims, are afraid to act, or simply don’t want to bother with the hassle.

Abuses Are Many

And while it could be argued the content flags on the NASA content were simple mistakes from overzealous news agencies, there are numerous examples of abuse by those who make claims on content that they do not directly own, fully knowing that few creators will bother to contest it. And why not? The process is automated and can effectively siphon revenue away from millions of honest content creators with minimal effort.

Nowhere is this more evident than with “royalty free” music. Royalty free tracks are sold with a license granting the content creator the ability to use songs in productions without having to pay a royalty. The stock industry has exploded as so much more video is being produced now, and as a result many artists sell their music to multiple providers. Some providers are in Content ID, and have been flagging royalty free tracks that they may sell but do not own exclusively.

One Ars Technica reader responding to an article written about our issue pointed to a rightsholder claiming ownership over white noise that appeared in a video. The user disputed the claim only to have the rightsholder deny it.

It’s unknown how many millions of dollars flow away from users due to these misidentified or fraudulent content claims. And because individual earnings are small, the ability of those content creators to exercise their legal rights utilizing the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) is limited. Yet the aggregate windfall these abusers may be realizing — given how easy it is to lay claim on tens of millions of videos — could be staggering.

—Read more about the DMCA

Level the Playing Field

YouTube has changed our global society in a short period of time, mostly for the better. The ongoing Arab Spring is evidence of YouTube’s power as a platform to quickly broadcast events to the world. Closer to home, YouTube stars like Wallingford’s Michael Buckley have built audiences in the millions with nothing more than their talent and off-the-shelf video equipment.

YouTube wouldn’t exist without its users. And while there is a balance to be struck to protect rightsholders from infringement, it’s urgently important to ensure that any system designed to protect copyright also will protect everyone equally, from independents like CTTechJunkie all the way up to corporate entities.

A special thanks goes to the Reddit community and Boing Boing who helped draw attention to this issue.


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