Some forms of copyright abuse, such as censoring free speech or stifling fair use, have a long and shameful history. But Youtube has given rise to a number of new incentives for making phony copyright claims. Lying about copyright can now lead to increased web traffic, licensing revenues, advertising dollars, and other business advantages. And while there is more than one way to scam Youtubers on the pretense of copyright protection, there has been an especially prevalent rise in the abuse of Youtube’s Content ID system and its tendency to prioritize groundless copyright claims over the rights of Youtube users.
Youtube’s Content ID program allows select parties to upload audio or video files to a Google-run database. The idea is you send Youtube some files that you own the copyright to, and then the Content ID database uses these files to scan the uploads of other Youtubers to see if they match. When the system identifies content that it thinks belongs to you, it will react in different ways depending on which of Youtube’s options you prefer: it can disable the targeted video instantly, or it can plaster the video with advertisements so you can share some revenue, or it can merely tag the video as content that belongs to you.
But because Youtube has repeatedly demonstrated that it doesn’t care very much when individual users get targeted by those who are willing to abuse the system, several dishonest bottomfeeders have clued in to an obvious way to make a money off the Content ID program: just tell it that you own the copyright to tonnes of videos that aren’t actually yours.
A Youtube remixer named Kenshiro3rd found himself of the receiving end of two separate copyright notices when he posted a remixed fan trailer for the game “Deus Ex Human Revolution.” The 1st notice was unfortunately familiar territory – a claim from Universal Music Group about the remix’s use of one of their songs, made with the company’s typical disregard for fair use rights. The 2nd copyright notice was more bizarre: the video footage in the remix was being claimed not by its copyright holders, and not by any trade associations, but rather by a separate media company that runs a game reviewing website.
The company identified itself as “Sanoma NL,” and when Kenshiro3rd mentioned this name to Youtube’s help forum he discovered that it was somewhat infamous amongst producers of game-related videos. The running accusation being made by multiple Youtubers is that Sanoma, a large Helinski-based media company, has been using its “gamerNL” Youtube account to indiscriminately claim copyright over not only their own content, but over the videogame footage that they use in their reviews. This means that anyone else who uses this game footage – from competing reviewers to machinima makers to “let’s play” gaming commentators – will be targeted by Youtube’s Content ID system as infringing against Sanoma. I ran a quick Google search myself and found a pile of videogame footage that was illegitimately branded as being the property of Sanoma’s “Gamer.NL” account.
Because Youtube is so secretive about its copyright enforcement programs, it’s hard to determine the exact details about how and why Sanoma is exploiting the Content ID system. But it’s easy enough to guess why they wouldn’t be particularly motivated to stop: slapping their name across other users’ Youtube uploads has linked these videos back to Sanoma’s Gamer.NL channel, with the added bonus of hampering competing game reviewers with bogus copyright disputes. On Youtube’s help forum, I found complaints about Sanoma NL that date back to 2009. But so far, it seems nobody is particularly motivated to make them stop.
Many Youtube users have lodged complaints about lesser-known accounts that use the Content ID program to siphon off illicit advertising revenue from other people’s videos, usually by claiming rights to popular videogame or movie footage (see also here and here). But since abusers risk nothing worse than an account ban, and since Youtube allows accounts like Sanoma’s to lie about copyright for years, it seems likely that these practices will continue.
The music tracks on Youtube videos are also targeted for abuse. Several users have reported licensing Royalty Free or Creative Commons music for their Youtube videos, only to have their uploads either taken down or littered with banner advertisements that belong to some other account. For years now, music services and their users have been pinning these copyright abuses on music licensing companies like Godigital Media or Audiomicro, who have been repeatedly called out for using Youtube’s Content ID system to illegitimately monetize Royalty Free recordings.
The Content ID program’s bulldozer approach to automated copyright policing has made lying about copyright into a worthwhile business option, leaving users stuck with bureaucratic hassles, lost revenue, disabled videos and banned accounts. This is exactly the kind of fallout that Chllingeffects.org warned would result from privately run, extra-legal copyright enforcement systems such as Youtube’s Content ID program. If there’s any chance to curb this sort of bottomfeeding, it will have to involve listening to warnings like those at Chillingeffects, and following the guidelines set out in documents like the “Fair Use Principles for User Generated Video Content Online.”
And I can think of one step in particular that Youtube could take tomorrow if they were serious about ending the abuse on their website: if the Content ID system is indeed an extra-legal system that is privately controlled by Youtube, then that means it does not have to imitate the “notice and takedown” procedures of the DMCA. Instead, Youtube could convert its Content ID program to a “notice and notice” system, which would let Youtube users dispute false claims before their videos get littered with ads or taken offline. This way, many of the liars who want to profit from bogus copyright claims would at least be forced to do so by means of fraudulent DMCA notices, which have more serious legal consequences and grant some legal protection to the targeted users. But for now, the Content ID system is being run in a way that makes abuse a low-risk endeavor, which means bogus claims will likely remain a routine business practice.