YouTube and content creators clash over the platform’s automated copyright tool
Nov 22, 2022

YouTube and content creators clash over the platform’s automated copyright tool

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Content ID determines when content is copyrighted and can divert payments to the rights holder. But few artists have access to the tool.

Every minute, people upload more than 500 hours of video to YouTube — cat videos, music videos, even videos of people recording their audio podcasts.

And some of those clips include content the people uploading them don’t own, like clips of music from popular songs.

YouTube, and its owner, Google, have an automated technology called Content ID that regularly scans for copyrighted material — including music — and flags it for copyright holders.

Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams spoke about this with Marketplace’s Peter Balonon-Rosen, who explained why the system has some musicians frustrated.

This feature originally aired Nov. 4.

When Rob Jones uploaded a video to YouTube in which he plays a few Nirvana riffs on a guitar, his video was flagged for violating the site’s copyright rules.

“Literally playing riffs, yeah,” Jones said. “I could play 10 seconds. I could play 30 seconds. Not even with any background music, just a guitar on its own.”

Jones runs a YouTube channel called the Guitar Manifesto, where he reviews and builds guitars — and often demos famous riffs. He’s one of many guitar channel owners who say that in recent years, YouTube, a Google property, has flagged a slew of their videos on behalf of major labels. Even though they’re playing the riffs themselves.

This is possible because of Content ID, a powerful automated tool created by Google that checks uploaded videos for copyrighted material. Content ID creates digital “fingerprints” for copyright owners’ works, then scans the platform to determine when content in an uploaded video matches. When Content ID flags an infringing video, copyright holders have choices: do nothing, take a video down or divert the revenue it generates to themselves.

But that system has led two groups of musicians to clash with YouTube. On one hand, there are YouTubers like Jones, who create content to teach people how to build and play musical instruments. On the other, some independent musicians say Content ID doesn’t go far enough to address copyright infringement.

Jones has over 20,000 followers and makes money from his channel. But when YouTube’s system flags one of his videos, copyright holders — generally record labels — can divert the revenue it generates to themselves. Meaning Jones earns nothing.

“I did a bass guitar review. And I played ‘Africa’ by Toto,” Jones said, humming the song’s opening riff. “And the video got demonetized.”

Content ID doesn’t flag every “check out this riff” video — there are still plenty online — but in 2021 alone YouTube processed 1.5 billion Content ID claims.

“Content ID is incredibly powerful,” said Rian Bosak, founder of SuperBam, a company that helps clients find and monetize their copyrighted material on YouTube using Content ID. “It can run around YouTube and claim a whole bunch of stuff real quick. I’m talking within seconds.”

Bosak said Content ID helps copyright owners reclaim what’s rightfully theirs. Last year, YouTube paid $2 billion in ad revenue to rights holders from content claimed and monetized through the system. Content ID “has created an entirely new revenue stream” for rights holders, according to a YouTube report.

“You’re talking a whole lot of money,” Bosak said. “It’s a big business. It’s a meaningful business. “

Now, the automated system has come under fire — for inappropriately flagging birds singing in the background of videos and loops of a cat purring. A few years back, a news channel uploaded a recording of a NASA mission, which generated claims against other channels, including NASA itself. But, Bosak said, Content ID is important.

“There’s thousands of videos uploaded to YouTube every minute, right? A lot of those pieces of content contain some level of content piracy,” Bosak said.

But who actually has access to Content ID? Not everyone.

“People like me who want to use it to protect our music, we’re, it seems, very left out,” said Maria Schneider, a seven-time Grammy Award-winning musician.

She’s collaborated with David Bowie, been nominated for a Pulitzer and been an outspoken critic of tech companies. Unauthorized versions of her music are all over YouTube, available for anyone to listen to.

“And at the same time, I’m trying to sell a record on my own website,” Schneider said. “It’s impossible to compete with free.”

YouTube limits access to Content ID to about 9,000 movie studios, record labels and publishers whose material, the platform says, is most likely to be used without permission. In a 2021 report, YouTube describes the people with access to Content ID as those who own “today’s hit song, scenes from a new movie or the latest viral video.”

In a statement, YouTube said it is working to expand access while balancing the need to protect creators and other rights holders. The platform said it also offers other tools to protect copyrights and that content creators always have the right to dispute claims against them.

Schneider has applied to use Content ID twice — and been denied. She can manually report infringement. But that’s not enough, she said. So, Schneider is leading a class-action lawsuit against YouTube, which claims that the platform facilitates mass copyright infringement by limiting Content ID access to only the most powerful copyright owners. 

“If we had the tools to properly protect ourselves from that free-for-all marketplace,” Schneider said, “it would be a game changer.”

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The team

Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer