It’s not uncommon for YouTube videos to be taken down due to copyright claims. Granted, some are justified, but the unjustified kind happen as well. One might even say it happens with alarming frequency. Usually, these takedowns involve some sort of media that someone could ostensibly copyright, making things an issue of who owns the rights to what. Recently, a YouTuber by the name of eeplox had a video flagged for copyright violation despite the fact that it contained nothing more than a discussion of wild salads, a few shots of plants, and some natural birdsong. Rumblefish, music licensing extraordinaire, seems to think it owns the exclusive copyright to one of those things.
Clearly this must be a mistake, so what’s really going on here? Well, it’s a lot bigger than a video about salad, and there’s a little bit of background we need to cover first.
First of all, what is Rumblefish anyway? Rumblefish, distinctly different from Rumble Fish by S. E. Hinton, is a music licensing company for the common man. They aim to serve as an intermediary between artists and the people who might use an artist’s work for, say, a YouTube video. The idea is that Rumblefish holds the licensing rights to a whole library of largely independent music and will then dole out those licenses to someone who needs some tunes for something like $1.99 per use. Sounds pretty good, right? It might be in theory, but there’s a whole bunch of examples of how — in this interconnected age where artists can feasibly deal directly with consumers — intermediaries can cause trouble.
Okay, so that’s Rumblefish, but what actually happened here? Was this a DMCA takedown? No. And that’s where things get a bit more complicated. In order to prevent copyright infringement, YouTube has a nifty little automated system called Content ID. With Content ID, rightsholders (like Rumblefish) upload their library of music, video, or what have you to YouTube, and YouTube proceeds to use that content to guard against infringement. Every time a new video is uploaded, it’s automatically compared against YouTube’s Content ID library for a match. If it finds one, it takes one of three actions, picked by the rightsholder ahead of time. You can have YouTube remove the content, leave it alone, or monetize the video. Keep that third one in mind.
Back to the example at hand: Eeplox uploaded this video of himself out in nature and suddenly found a notification that Rumblefish had confirmed claims to content of the type “Musical Composition.” What? Exactly.
Clearly, there’s something going wrong here as the video that was Content ID matched clearly has no copyrighted material anywhere in it. In a Google help thread about the issue eeplox, relayed the message he’d received from YouTube, which said that “All content owners have reviewed your video and confirmed their claims to some or all of its content.” So, where did this review and confirmation come from? Either Rumblefish just clicked “OK” on a bunch of stuff without paying attention, or YouTube processes these kinds of things automatically. Having never been on the rightsholder side of a Content ID dispute, I can’t tell you what Rumblefish saw, or was expected to do, but after looking around, I can tell you that YouTube’s Content ID FAQ explicitly says that they take action automatically.
YouTube’s page on Content ID lists the following as one of its bullet points in a list titled “Why Use Content ID”
Fully Automated. Once you’re set up, Content ID will identify, claim, and apply policies to YouTube videos for you.
But does that constitute “confirmation?” Redditor iampaulanthony, claiming to speak for Rumblefish, sort of implied it did at first, asserting that the video was flagged automatically. However, in a subsequent AMA, he elaborated that the match must have been confirmed by a Rumblefish Content ID representative, backpedaling a little bit. Far from clearing things up, that just raises more questions. Did this guy even look at the video? Is there even really a guy? The lack of infringement is pretty clear, how did that slip by?
That’s where the monetization of Content ID comes in. According to eeplox, after the Content ID match was “confirmed,” ads started appearing on his video, meaning Rumblefish had their phasers set to monetize, essentially meaning that so long as Content ID keeps shoveling in matches and Rumblefish keeps hitting confirm, they can generate ad revenue since YouTube, like DMCA, trusts the alleged rightsholder over the alleged infringer.
I won’t go so far as to say Rumblefish is running a scam without some more evidence (although others will), but I will definitely say that this presents the opportunity for a scam. I’ll admit that the “monetize” concept seems like a preferable solution to the flat-out removal of content, but it actually gives incentive for people to confirm bogus claims, especially on a bunch of little guys who aren’t likely to become the focus of attention (or even care), but will allow the ad revenue to dribble in.
If the shoot-first-ask-questions-later mentality of DMCA wasn’t bad enough, the shoot-first-make-money-now possibility of Content ID matching is a different, but disturbingly similar flavor of copyright management. It’s dangerous to have copyright law that fires indiscriminately on the little guys (many of whom are the same kind of independent artists that intermediaries like Rumblefish claim to represent), but it’s a whole other problem to have policy that encourages the behavior and actually pays people for doing it. Don’t get me wrong; copyright protection is very important, but maybe it’s about time we take a good hard look at who it’s actually protecting.
- A detailed list of instances of the aforementioned shoot-first DMCA mentality
- An instance of an artist getting shafted by a label who wanted to buy his copyright
- Warner Bros. overstepping its bounds as a rightsholder