YouTube, The Copyright Law and The Wild, Wild West

Go to YouTube.com. Random click 4-5 times. And you’ll probably stumble across blatant copyright infringement at least once or twice. Or 4-5 times.

When it comes to Copyright Law, YouTube is indeed the Wild, Wild West. Yes, there are enforcement policies in place. A video you see today may be removed next week due to copyright violation. But keeping with our Wild West analogy, it’s like one Marshall patrolling the entire frontier west of the Mississippi, since approximately 300 hours of video are currently uploaded to YouTube every minute. In 2013, YouTube “called in the cavalry” and moved forward on a Copyright Crackdown with their automated bots and their Content ID programs and algorithms. It created a huge backlash with unintended consequences, mostly among video gamers and game reviewers.

Here’s YouTube reality today. Based on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), YouTube as a video platform cannot be sued for copyright infringement as long as it has a procedure in place for removing videos that infringe on copyright—but that’s only if and when the rightful owner of a song or video identifies a copyright violation, alerts YouTube and requests the unauthorized video be removed.

So whether it’s Jonny B. Average guitar player trying to cover his favorite Rush song, or Aunt Clarice using “You Raise Me Up” as the soundtrack to her recent vacation video of her trip to Mount Shasta, there’s a copyright violation around almost every YouTube corner. Both Jonny and Aunt Clarice are violating (usually unknowingly) most of the six exclusive rights that the U.S. Copyright Law provides to owners of creative works. They are: reproduction, adaptation, distribution, performance, display and recording.

And some rightful song owners have indeed “deputized” themselves and are vigilantly searching for unauthorized YouTube cover versions of their songs—but not for the reason you might think. Our faithful Record Company or Music Publisher deputies don’t want the videos taken down. They want to be sure the videos are accounted for, so they can receive their proper allotment of YouTube advertising revenue.

The Gold Rush

So the frenzied Gold Rush continues—for YouTube ad revenue. Many of the golden nuggets are technically illegal. And nobody seems to mind.

For more information on the US Copyright Office’s own study on the current state of US Copyright Law, see “Of Copyright and Churches, Oncoming Trains And Change.”

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