A Plague of Opportunistic Claims – YouTube Diaries 3 of 6

Last week, I shared how my cover of Usher and Alicia Keys’ “My Boo” was blocked in the United States. I took the opportunity both to discuss how YouTube’s “Content ID” algorithms for recognizing copyrighted content worked and to share how you can sometimes apply the Fair Use doctrine to dispute copyright claims made against your video, as long as you can make a good argument. This time, I discuss how companies leverage Content ID to make bogus copyright claims that siphon off creators’ ad revenue without lifting a finger.

As fate would have it, the cover for “My Boo” got another copyright claim a few months later for entirely different reasons. We had filmed it in the charming British seaside town of Brighton, known for its beaches covered in smooth pebbles. When waves wash over the shore, the pebbles over each other, creating innumerable little “clacks” as they strike, and the sounds become a magical chorus resounding in a big “whoosh” as the water recedes. In need of clear audio of this sound, I  stumbled upon “Stevious42”, who had recorded the them and released his files on Freesounds.org under a Creative Commons License.

Months later, I received the follow copyright claim from a group called “[Merlin] The state51 Conspiracy,” who argued that the sample infringed their copyrighted work, “White Noise Upon The Sea:

my_boo_claim2.PNG

Oh goody, I’m “not in trouble.” No big deal, somebody just gets a cut of my revenue and/or “is receiving stats about [my] video’s views.” The second issue is possibly more disturbing than the first, since at least with money, you can win it back in the dispute. You can’t win back somebody’s knowledge of your operations.

The State51 Conspiracy is apparently a music label that specializes in making “art video” versions of their clients’ songs (attaching miscellaneous video to song tracks so there’s something to go with the audio on YouTube) to increase the music’s circulation online. They cover their bases by submitting the library of music they manage to Content ID and letting YouTube do its magic. They aren’t, strictly speaking, the copyright owners in these cases; rather, they are managing copyrights on behalf of their clients.

And so it appears that someone in their artists’ stable had a track called “White Noise Upon The Sea,” that sounded like the sample at the beginning of my video since, you know, maybe they were both the sounds of freaking waves hitting the shore.

But there’s actually more to it than that. I’m not 100% sure and should probably do the audio analysis sometime, but State51 may actually be infringing upon the original sample I used. Here’s the sample, by Stevious42 on Freesounds.org:

And here’s it at the beginning of the video for “My Boo” (the Brighton seaside audio plays right from the start):

And finally, here’s “White Noise Upon the Sea” that State51 uploaded, the audio that I “infringed”:

It sure sounds to my naked ear like they just grabbed an mp3 off the internet and passed it off as their own. At least I had the decency to credit the original creator, which you are legally obligated to do since he released it under a “Creative Commons Attribution” agreement, meaning that it’s cool to use, as long as you acknowledge the person who made it.

What can we say about claiming intellectual property on the sound of the sea, in general? It’s dumb. Sure, somebody took the time out to make a recording, and thus their labor should be compensated in some manner. However, it’s also the freaking sound of the sea. The content itself isn’t proprietary in any way, so think about the crazy fact that this cycle of human behavior actually exists: Person X records the ocean; Person Y uses the sample, attributing X; Person Z uses the sample, WITHOUT attribution; Z sends an automated claim to Y (and others) that Y is using its intellectual property, siphoning ad revenue from Y but also ignoring X entirely.

This inane complexity only manifests because people have created an idea that human beings are entitled to discrete, personal compensation for all the things that they make. Consequently, we have intellectual property protections and copyright law. These protections are not altogether baseless, and they can often serve to protect creators, but where we have copyright law, we also have entities capable of profiting off these laws by operating at their margins and skirting the boundaries of the laws’ spirit.

I’m clearly in the right in this particular case, but that’s almost beside the point. Companies like State51 can profit purely off the fact that the Content ID system places a small burden on me to prove their claims wrong and file a dispute. YouTube could hire people to check these themselves, or there could be more stringent punishment for adding content to the database that doesn’t actually belong to you. Instead, the minimum labor I do to protect myself, when they either withdraw their claim or it lapses after 30 days, only protects me. Thus, State51 benefits from the fundamental architecture of YouTube’s algorithms combined with State51’s content library. Standing on the other side are just individuals, divided into separate silos so their actions only defend themselves but have no synergistic value for protecting others. I thought “value added” was a really popular concept in business these days…not for the little guy, I guess.

Regardless, I needed to at least show for the record that they had no claim against me, so I drafted a response pointing out where the original audio came from, and 30 days later, their claim lapsed when I got no response. It wasn’t that big a deal, but the way State51 leverages Content ID to passively make money off content they don’t even own is pretty egregious (and common). The onus of correcting YouTube’s Content ID databases is foisted upon small-time creators, who are crowd-sourced/conscripted into the task by constantly having to defend themselves against bogus claims.

Unfortunately, if you want to be on the platform, then you have no other pragmatic option than to deal with it. Cover your bases by knowing exactly where your content comes from, draw from amazing resources like Freesounds.org when you need it, and hit back at the people taking advantage of the system where you can.

Thanks for reading! Please comment below with your thoughts on the matter and share it with others who might be interested. Next week, I’ll continue my look at companies making bogus copyright claims, zeroing in on how companies can profit from the intellectual property vacuum left by the ambiguous status of music made in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War (1954-1975).

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The YouTube Diaries Series:

Featured image adapted from “The Plague of Locusts,” an illustration from the 1890 Holman Bible. The original scan came from the Wikimedia Commons.

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