Kai Ryssdal: YouTube is an interesting beast. Companies use it for public relations and corporate image-making. People use it for everything from uploading videos of their kids to videos of their cats. There are mash-ups of old television shows and amateur musicians playing popular songs as well. Those last two, of course, are even more interesting because they use copyrighted material, which means the copyright holders can -- if they so choose -- keep those videos off YouTube. But more and more, companies are choosing to make a little cash out of it instead.
Marketplace's Sean Cole reports first-hand.
Sean Cole: There's a video of me on YouTube singing karaoke at a birthday party.
Cole: So we go to YouTube...
Which is embarrassing enough.
Sean Cole singing "Daydream Believer"
Adding insult to atonality, I am also now -- indirectly -- a source of revenue. Because about 12 seconds into the video...
Cole: Right there -- an ad for Caravan.com pops up. "Caravan.com. Since 1952. Have you found the best value in travel?"
It just makes me feel a bit... used. But I'm not alone. Thousands and thousands of ads are being placed on user-generated videos with copyrighted content on them. All at the hands of an omnipotent robot.
David King: Well, yeah. In general what happens is that we operate a content identification system, which analyzes everything that gets uploaded to YouTube.
David King manages that system, which is called Content ID. And it works like this. Entertainment companies provide YouTube with scads of reference files of their songs, movies, TV shows.
King: So at this point they've provided about 300,000 hours of content.
And the robot automatically compares every new YouTube video up against that database -- both the picture and the sound. It analyzes more than a century worth of video a day.
King: So that would be the equivalent of 36,000 people -- without taking any breaks -- working 24 hours a day, staring at screens.
When it finds a match, it automatically does whatever the rights-holders want. Block the content. Leave it up. Or have YouTube monetize it with an ad. YouTube and the company split the money and everybody's happy. More and more entertainment companies are going the ad route. David King says monetization claims tripled in just six months last year. And he says I should be glad about it.
King: I mean you're singing the song because you love it, presumably.
Cole: Oh, I do love it.
King: So we really feel that it's reasonable for us to connect the use of that composition back to the original songwriter of that song.
These ads are such a win-win-win that even a staunch critic of Content ID thinks they're a good idea.
Corynne McSherry: So my name is Corynne McSherry and I am the Intellectual Property Director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. And I focus on litigation involving fair use and free-speech issues.
She says Content ID has been blocking videos that fall under the fair use doctrine, which lets people copy all or part of a copyrighted work for certain purposes -- criticism, scholarship, etc. So if those videos are monetized instead, they stay on the site.
McSherry: But what we don't want to have the price of that be is a situation where everybody assumes that just because music exists in a video that you should have to get permission for it or you should have to pay for it because in many instances you don't have to.
At the same time, she says, YouTube can now tell complainants like Warner Brothers and Viacom, "Look! We're bringing in money for rights-holders!" And they are.
For instance, you might have seen the hugely viral video "JK Wedding Dance." It's an actual wedding processional. Or rather freak-cessional, in which all of the bridesmaids and groomsmen groove down the aisle to the Chris Brown song "Forever."
Always makes me cry. The video came out a year after the song did and about five months after Brown was charged with domestic abuse. And yet online sales for the single suddenly zoomed. Largely because of a click-through ad on the video.
Jeff Dodes: I believe it was selling 3,000 or 4,000 a week and I think it rose to about 50,000.
Jeff Dodes is head of Marketing and Digital Media at Jive Label Group, which is owned by Sony and handles Chris Brown. He says at first Sony saw Content ID as a way of cracking down on intellectual property scofflaws. But now...
Dodes: Generally we're trying to be as liberal as we possibly can in allowing users do their thing. But also allow us to monetize our content.
Cole: Make a little green.
Dodes: And it is little. We're not talking about a ton of money here now.
Tens of thousands, he says, compared to the millions of dollars a big-name artist can earn on tour. Still, it's money. And it means more videos are staying up. Nonetheless, a lot of YouTube users are livid about Content ID, which still does block some content. One of them posted this note on the site a couple of months ago -- "YouTube?" he wrote, "It should be called either TheirTube or YouLose."
I'm Sean Cole for Marketplace.