In 2007, I uploaded a video called "Manliness," in which my friend Joel (who is much manlier than I) does manly things like opening a beer with an elk antler. These were the days when anything went on YouTube, so I didn’t really think twice about using a Willie Nelson song in the video. I should have — that was theft. It was copyright infringement, and everyone knows it.
When YouTube introduced its ContentID system three months later, I got an email saying that that video was, well, still mine. However, a license had been placed on it and all of the revenue that video generated would be going to Willie Nelson’s record label. This, for me, was better than the video getting taken down, and certainly better than getting sued. And for RCA Records, it was revenue that they wouldn’t have made before, so pretty much a win-win.
ContentID is amazing. It checks every second of every video uploaded to YouTube against a massive database of owned content to ensure that the video doesn’t have someone else’s property in it. If it does, it then allows the creator of the content to automatically do whatever they’d like. They can take the video down, or they can claim the revenue for themselves, or they can do nothing. This is not an expensive game of whack-a-mole, it’s 100 percent automated.
So when I saw Irving Azoff’s letter here on Recode repeating the old line that creators can’t keep their content off YouTube, I’m really not sure what he’s talking about. If you don’t want your song on YouTube, upload it into the ContentID database and issue a blanket takedown for all videos using that song.
And yet, this is done only very rarely. Every record label has their own policy for what they will do, and many individual artists have their policies as well, but very few do blanket takedowns of their property.
Because being on YouTube is good for artists and record labels, and everybody knows it. YouTube has sent $3 billion in royalties to record labels. Fan-made videos that cost labels nothing to produce provide not just marketing but more than 50 percent of that $3 billion.
Being on YouTube is good for artists and record labels, and everybody knows it.
Yes, it’s a system that works better at scale, but so is the entire music industry. It’s not like they weren’t already focused on blockbusters.
I understand that developing new models in an entrenched industry sucks. Once you’ve built up infrastructure, you want to get value out of it before building something new. But that’s not what Irving Azoff and I are talking about, we’re talking about the rights and future of creators.
First I have to say that I respect Irving Azoff a great deal. I don’t mean that in the snarky, "I admire what he’s done but he needs to move over for the next generation" way. I mean, "I think this is a good man with good intentions who has done and will continue to do good and important things for the creative community."
But when Mr. Azoff bemoans that it is possible for YouTube creators to question a record label’s takedown of their video, that freaks me out. What if the use of that song is legitimately fair use? What if it was falsely claimed because they chose the wrong title for their video? Should there be no repercussion for independent creators? Should we only protect the rights of content owners who happen to be represented by major media companies?
He also speaks of discord between YouTube and the creative community. Well, from where I sit, that discord is in the "Where’s the Fair Use" movement, an independent movement of independent creators who have had their livelihoods threatened by false claims by mega-companies. YouTube is listening to those complaints, having recently launched a system that allows videos to continue generating revenue (to be held in escrow) while a claim is processed.
YouTube isn’t "hiding behind" DMCA safe harbor. It isn’t a loophole, it’s a law. It was designed to protect companies from overzealous litigation, and it’s doing exactly that.
So YouTube is protecting independent creators who have built their livelihood on its platform with intelligent content. And maybe they’re playing hardball with fellow multibillion-dollar companies that are unhappy to be living in the present. But that seems like a pretty logical strategy to me. And anyway, YouTube isn’t "hiding behind" DMCA safe harbor. It isn’t a loophole, it’s a law. It was designed to protect companies from overzealous litigation, and it’s doing exactly that.
I absolutely agree with Mr. Azoff that we have an artist support problem in our society. Artists provide far more value than they are able to capture. The internet is, on the whole, making this worse, but that’s been helped along by the last 50 years of the music industry turning art into a commodity. Google and YouTube could certainly help alleviate these problems, but I don’t know that labels have the moral high ground here.
Labels have been given all of the control the law requires, and more. They’ve been given the lion’s share of revenue generated by YouTube Red. They’ve been given higher-than-ever cuts from their artists on this new revenue. And they’ve been given a new 10-figure revenue stream of claimed fan creations that they never would have had without YouTube.
These companies appear to be complaining about how bad their dinner is, mid-swallow. I have to ask, if they hate it so much, why do they keep eating?
Hank Green is a professional YouTube creator, and has been for the last eight years. He and his brother have made thousands of videos that have been viewed more than 1.5 billion times. Hank makes content at Vlogbrothers, Crash Course and SciShow, and is the CEO of VidCon, the world’s largest convention for the online video community. Reach him @hankgreen.
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This article originally appeared on Recode.net.