Theft of the Mind: The Abuse of YouTube Copyright ClaimsBY Skylar Blinn
YouTube’s integrity is under fire. One would expect such a threat to come from an outside source, such as a competing site, but this is not the case: rather, the move to dismantle the platform is a collaboration between YouTube staff, its partners, and a horde of channels across the site. For years, entertainment, information on various subjects, and income provided by the platform have wrongfully vanished in instances that number in the millions. This mass silencing is made possible by one faulty system built into the platform: the copyright claims system. The system, which is meant to allow channels and partners to alert YouTube when their intellectual property has been stolen, is being abused by corporations and individuals alike. Many individuals file copyright claims against videos and profess that their intellectual property has been stolen simply to take down or demonetize any videos they dislike. The ease with which these claims can be made and the difficulty of justly disputing them make this a severe problem for content creators and viewers alike. For content creators, this means that wrongfully losing income is dangerously likely. For viewers, it means that people can control their access to entertainment and information on false grounds. There may yet be a way to salvage this dire situation, however. YouTube must take action against this epidemic. If YouTube were to require proof of intellectual ownership to submit a copyright claim, to make it harder for claimants to control copyright dispute outcomes, to prevent claimants from claiming revenue until the dispute is resolved, and to leave claimed videos visible to the public until the copyright claims are reviewed, the instances of copyright claim abuse could be lessened and their effects on the platform mitigated. Indeed, YouTube’s integrity may yet be salvageable, but only if the platform itself chooses to intervene.
There are two primary mechanisms by which content is suppressed on the basis of copyright infringement: Content ID claims and copyright takedown. Content ID claims occur as a combination of both YouTube partners and an automatic algorithm working together to determine when intellectual property rights have been infringed. How this works is that copyright owners whose videos on YouTube are monetized—hence referred to as YouTube partners—distinguish certain visual or auditory content as theirs via a file upload. They do this so that when a video containing their material is uploaded, YouTube’s algorithm detects the match, and a claim on the offending video is “automatically generated” (“What Is a Content Id Claim?”). From there, the video is demonetized, and the supposed copyright owner can determine what specific restrictions they would like to be placed on the offending video.
The second method to claim a video is a copyright takedown. While these claims are significantly less common and subject to manual review, they can be submitted by anyone by completing a publicly accessible webform (“Submit a Copyright Takedown Request”). These claims are significantly more severe, as they result in copyright strikes. If a YouTube channel is given three copyright strikes, it is “subject to termination,” and the channel’s creator will be unable to create additional channels in the future (“Copyright Strike Basics”).
While these processes may appear reasonable on the surface, they have many flaws. The Content ID method often falls into conflict with fair use, which occurs when an individual transforms copyrighted content by “comment[ing] upon, criticiz[ing], or parody[ing]” copyrighted material (Stim). Under these circumstances, even if the copyrighted content is not owned by the individual who uploaded it, the individual is entitled to use it. Fair use is determined by multiple factors, including the extent to which a work is transformed, whether or not the transformed work is monetized, the use of “fictional copyrighted material,” and the amount of copyrighted material borrowed (“Fair Use – Copyright on YouTube”). These factors—and many more—make fair use an elaborate issue, and thus, it is typically decided in court on a case-by-case basis.
Content ID claims therefore run into issues when it comes to fair use. The primary issue is that fair use is far too nuanced for the algorithm responsible for Content ID claims to handle. Content ID simply searches YouTube for content that matches copyrighted content in its database and claims it automatically, meaning that it is impossible to consider the copyrighted material in context. This is partially on purpose, as, by its own admission, YouTube has no bearing on what is and is not considered fair use (“Fair Use – Copyright on YouTube”). Its algorithm thus acts indiscriminately to err on the side of caution. By using the cold, impersonal algorithm to distance itself from disputes and absolve itself of responsibility, YouTube effectively suffocates dialogue on the platform.
The Content ID algorithm’s inadequacy is made all the more severe due to the manner in which YouTube handles disputes against the algorithm’s automatic claims. A copyright claim dispute occurs when the creator whose uploaded video has been claimed contests the claim on the grounds that it is mistaken, abusive, or otherwise unjust. One would have reason to assume that a disputed copyright claim would be manually reviewed by YouTube staff so as to prevent corporations or individuals from abusing the copyright claim system, but this is not so. Instead, the alleged copyright owner, or claimant, is notified of the claim dispute, and it is up to them to decide what to do with the video from that point onward (“Dispute a Content ID Claim”). At this point in the process, only the claimant has the ability to release the copyright claim. If the claim is reinstated after this dispute, the creator whose video is blocked has no choice but to file an appeal. Not only is the appeal also handled by the claimant, but younger channels may not be able to submit an appeal at all, as the ability to submit an appeal depends on an account’s age (“Dispute a Content ID Claim”). This methodology renders large channels virtually helpless and smaller channels even more so. Furthermore, despite videos posted by YouTube Creators proving that YouTube has copyright experts on staff, the customary approval process does not take advantage of this by requiring such experts to manually review Content ID disputes (“Dispute a Content ID Claim”). Claims would be subject to manual review if claimants were to submit a copyright takedown request at any point during the dispute process, but claimants have no incentive to subject themselves to manual review when they can control the restriction on a video without subjecting themselves to the YouTube staff’s prying eyes. This glaring oversight on YouTube’s part allows abuse to run rampant across the platform.
Some may claim that copyright claim abuse is not a severe problem. After all, 729 million copyright claims were submitted to YouTube in the first half of 2021, and, of these, only 3.5 million claims were disputed. Even fewer claims—2.2 million to be precise—were resolved in a manner that ultimately reversed the original claim (Gatewood). While this does appear to be a proportionally small issue at a glance, it is unwise to dismiss copyright claim abuse as a non-issue. These statistics still reveal that 2.2 million videos—or, in other words, 2.2 million sources of income and entertainment—were revealed to have been wrongfully targeted by copyright claims in just a few months. Furthermore, 722 million of the 729 million copyright claims were performed by Content ID, meaning that the claimants controlled the vast majority of the disputes (Gatewood). It is therefore inevitable that more abuse occurred without being detected. Some may argue still, however; they may state that even if all 3.5 million claims that were disputed were unjust, this would account for too small a proportion to be significant. These naysayers fail to consider another issue: unjust claims that go undisputed. The nuances of Content ID mean that content creators, especially young channels or channels without a large following, are more likely to lose a Content ID dispute. Many creators know this, so they do not report even the most blatant Content ID abuse.
One such content creator is SmellyOctopus. With just 26.4k subscribers, his channel is modestly sized. This, combined with the fact that his content spans several genres, makes him a prime example of what the average content creator can expect to experience when battling YouTube’s current copyright system. SmellyOctopus uploaded a video showing him and his friends playing a game and was surprised to be struck with a copyright claim. When he investigated the time that the copyrighted content was supposedly located, the time frame contained only a few seconds of his own voice (“YouTube Copyright Claimed My Voice”). Despite knowing full well that the claim was bogus, the creator decided not to dispute the claim, fearing that his channel’s small size would make him especially vulnerable to a loss (“YouTube Copyright Claimed My Voice”). Because of content creators’ hesitation to dispute claims, any number of the supposedly just copyright claims could, in fact, be abusive claims that went uncontested. This means that the number of abusive claims—which was already in the millions after mere months—is certain to be higher than was reported.
While YouTube may not be able to make an ultimate decision regarding what is and is not a copyright infringement, there are some measures the platform can undertake to protect content creators and viewers once a claim has been made. The sheer volume of copyright claims received by YouTube means that it is neither practical nor possible for the platform to cease using the Content ID algorithm (Gatewood). However, YouTube could still protect content creators by requiring manual review once a copyright claim dispute has been initiated. Rather than allowing the claimant to dictate the outcome, YouTube could advise the claimant on reasons why they should or should not repeal their copyright claim. By merely providing advice, the platform would avoid the legal ramifications of issuing a final statement on what constitutes fair use, while simultaneously ensuring that an appropriate degree of humanity is present in its copyright system.
Introducing manual review would mean that disputes would take longer to resolve, however. This is an issue, as monetized videos that are claimed by Content ID often begin paying out all the money they generate to the claimant until a dispute is made and resolved (“YouTube Copyright Claimed My Voice”). In addition to this, claimants currently have the option to make videos unviewable by the public until the claim is resolved in the original uploader’s favor, restricting the masses’ access to entertainment and information (“Dispute a Content ID Claim”). This, too, can be resolved. Rather than giving all the money generated by questionable videos to the claimant, YouTube can demonetize the video entirely for both parties, holding any revenue the video would have received until the dispute is resolved before distributing it to the winning party. This would protect just claims by preventing content creators from unjustly profiting from another’s content, and it would also remove the monetary incentive for people to falsely claim content. Furthermore, this method would ensure that no revenue would be lost by the party found to be in the right once the dispute is resolved.
The unjust restriction of media can also be resolved by leaving videos visible to the public while a claim is in effect. The claimant’s channel name may appear beside the original uploader’s channel name to demonstrate that the video’s intellectual ownership is in question, but viewers would still have the ultimate freedom to access informative and entertaining content. Finally, YouTube should require claimants to prove they have the rights to the content they are claiming prior to the submission of a copyright takedown request or Content ID restriction reinstatement. The current copyright takedown form only requires claimants to state that they have a “good faith belief” that their claim is just; the form lacks even the option to submit proof of ownership (“Requirements for Copyright Infringement Notifications”). By requiring proof, YouTube would ensure that false copyright takedown requests need never reach manual review to begin with.
As they currently stand, YouTube’s copyright claim and copyright strike systems allow claimants to unjustly restrict not only content creators’ income but also viewers’ right to information and entertainment. However, by improving the integrity of the copyright claim and takedown systems and taking steps to protect viewers and creators while claims are being processed, it is possible to make large strides toward protecting the platform’s integrity. The sense of urgency associated with this task is already great due to the immense number of individuals that it affects. In the wake of the pandemic, this task has grown even more significant; digital sources are at the forefront of entertainment and information more than ever before. They are the future, and each day, the decisions made on these platforms set important precedents. If the platform’s integrity is not restored promptly, YouTube resigns to telling all the platform’s inhabitants—and the digital world at large—that their interests and livelihoods are not worth protecting.
“Copyright Strike Basics – Youtube Help.” Google, Google, https://support.google.com/youtube/answer/2814000?hl=en.
“Dispute a Content ID Claim – Youtube Help.” Google, Google, https://support.google.com/youtube/answer/2797454?hl=en.
Gatewood, Alex. “YouTube Finally Admits It: Millions of Videos Are Slapped with Incorrect Copyright Claims.” KnowTechie, 13 Dec. 2021, https://knowtechie.com/youtube-finally-admits-it-millions-of-videos-are-slapped-with-incorrect-copyright-claims/.
“Requirements for Copyright Infringement Notifications: Videos – YouTube Help.” Google, Google, https://support.google.com/youtube/answer/6005900?hl=en.
SmellyOctopus. “Youtube Copyright Claimed My Voice ~ What’s Going On?” YouTube, https://youtu.be/w4WC9CbFEy8.
Stim, Richard. “What Is Fair Use?” Stanford Copyright and Fair Use Center, 25 Nov. 2021, https://fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/fair-use/what-is-fair-use/.
“Submit a Copyright Takedown Request – Youtube Help.” Google, Google, https://support.google.com/youtube/answer/2807622?hl=en.
“What Is a Content Id Claim? – Youtube Help.” Google, Google, https://support.google.com/youtube/answer/6013276?hl=en.
YouTube Creators. “Fair Use – Copyright on YouTube.” YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1PvjRIkwIl8.
About the Author
Skylar Blinn is a sophomore studying at Fordham’s Rose Hill campus. She originally comes from Central Florida, and much of her free time is spent browsing the internet in search of entertainment and artistic inspiration. It is her appreciation of the digital world’s potential that led her to notice and discuss the glaring shortcomings on some of its platforms.