YouTube’s automated copyright management tool is pissing off musicians

When Rob Jones uploaded a video to YouTube in which he plays some 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 background music, just a guitar on its own.

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

This is possible thanks to Content ID, a powerful automated tool created by Google that checks whether downloaded videos contain copyrighted material. Content ID creates digital “fingerprints” for copyright owners’ works, then scans the platform to determine if the content of an uploaded video matches. When Content ID flags an infringing video, copyright owners have a choice: do nothing, remove a video, or reclaim the revenue it generates.

But this system has led two groups of musicians to clash with YouTube. On one side are YouTubers like Jones, who create content to teach people how to build and play musical instruments. On the other hand, some independent musicians claim that Content ID does not go far enough to fight copyright infringement.

Jones has over 20,000 subscribers and makes money from his channel. But when YouTube’s system flags one of its videos, copyright holders – usually record labels – can divert the revenue it generates to themselves. Which means Jones won’t win anything.

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

Content ID doesn’t flag all “watch this riff” videos — there are still plenty online — but in 2021 alone, YouTube processed 1.5 billion Content ID complaints.

“Content ID is incredibly powerful,” said Rian Bosak, founder of SuperBam, a company that helps customers find and monetize their copyrighted content on YouTube using Content ID. “He can go through YouTube and claim a whole bunch of stuff really fast. I talk in seconds.

Bosak said Content ID helps copyright owners reclaim what is rightfully theirs. Last year, YouTube paid out $2 billion in advertising revenue to rightsholders from content claimed and monetized through the system. According to a YouTube report, Content ID “has created a whole new revenue stream” for rights holders.

“You talk a lot of money,” Bosak said. “It’s a big deal. It’s a business that makes sense. “

Now the automated system has come under fire – for inappropriately flagging birds singing in the background of videos and loops of a purring cat. A few years ago, 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 are thousands of videos uploaded to YouTube every minute, right? A lot of that content contains some level of pirated content,” Bosak said.

But who really has access to Content ID? Not everybody.

“People like me who want to use it to protect our music, we seem to be very left behind,” said seven-time Grammy Award winner Maria Schneider.

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

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

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

In a statement, YouTube said it was 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 requested the use of Content ID twice – and was refused. She can manually report a violation. But that’s not enough, she says. So, Schneider is pursuing a class action lawsuit against YouTube, which claims the platform facilitates mass copyright infringement by limiting access to Content ID to only the most powerful copyright holders.

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

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