WTF, YouTube?


YouTube is a major part of videogame culture. It's where the trailers appear. It's where we post our let's play videos. It's where we put speedruns, walkthroughs, strategy guides, tournaments, highlight reels, reviews, rants, genre deconstructions, analysis, and glitches. YouTube serves roughly the same purpose as the stands do in a modern sports arena. That's not where the game is played, but it's hard to imagine the sport without it. Like gaming sites and forums, it's part of the connective tissue of the hobby.

Which is a shame, since YouTube is a horrible broken mess of Byzantine rules with Orwellian enforcement.

Two weeks ago YouTube personality Doug Walker (The Nostalgia Critic) teamed up with a number of other individuals to protest the unjust behavior of Google's Content ID system. It was a great video that outlined how unfair YouTube was, how destructive it was to conversations, how random and unpredictable its behavior was, and (worst of all) how it created an incentive for people to steal the modest income of small content producers who aren't breaking copyright laws, but who don't have the financial and legal muscle to protect themselves. It kicked off a social media protest under the #WTFU (Where's The Fair Use?) hashtag and tried to make the public at large aware of just how bad things are for people trying to make content for YouTube.

How it works is this: Let's say you make a video review, preview, or critique of the new Tomb Raider game. Maybe you use trailer footage to show people the gameplay. Maybe you use game footage you recorded yourself, which will naturally includes the in-game cutscenes. The problem is that someone else already uploaded the same (or similar) footage and claimed themselves as the the owners of the copyright on that material.

Maybe it was Sony. Maybe it was Square Enix. Maybe it was a major gaming site. Maybe it was a small outfit of copyright trolls who exist only to harass people like you. It doesn't matter. For the purposes of this example, I'll call this other party "Rando". YouTube's Content ID system notices that twenty seconds of your video is identical to twenty seconds of Rando's. Therefore your half-hour video is deemed to be infringing on Rando's copyright. Two hours after your video goes up, the automated system detects your nefarious crime. Advertisements run before your video, and all of the revenue is sent to Rando.

(Imagine if the reverse was true. If a television talk show showed a viral cat video and the original cat owner could simply claim all of the income for the entire show, even though the hour-long program only played a few seconds of cat video.)

Not only is this system deeply unfair, it also runs without any sort of checks or balances.

You immediately file a dispute, saying that your video is clearly not infringing. Rando's claim to ownership might be valid or not (I've had to deal with outfits who uploaded someone else's trailer and pretended they own it) but in any case, the claim is bogus because excerpting twenty seconds to make a half-hour of original video is a completely legitimate action. Just like I could quote a couple paragraphs of a Stephen King novel here in my article without needing to cut a check to King, you're allowed to sample a small part of a longer work for illustrative purposes.

Rando doesn't need to respond. They can just ignore your counter-claim for a couple of weeks and continue to soak up income from your video. If they don't respond, then eventually their claim against the video will pass and you'll once again start getting ad revenue from it. Of course, by then everyone has already watched the video. Rando filed an unjust claim against you and took 95% of the revenue from original content that you produced.

But wait, it's worse! Not only is this system deeply unfair, it also runs without any sort of checks or balances. Rando can continue to run this scam forever, stealing the income from hundreds of tiny producers. Rando never has to give back the money and there will never be any punishment for it, no matter how many invalid copyright claims they make. (Or rather, no matter how many invalid claims are made on their behalf by the automated system.)

Some people claim that YouTube "has no choice" but to use Content ID. That's not quite the case. It's true that the DMCA does put obligations on YouTube (or any other media-streaming service) over how they need to operate, but Content ID goes above and beyond those obligations.

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