Comment Writer Holly Pittaway discusses the current problem of usage rights affecting Youtubers, many of whom have had their content claimed by larger organisations, and why usage laws are letting them down
If you manage to keep up with YouTube drama like me, you’ll probably have heard about the recent scandal in the mukbang community whereby several popular creators, most notably Veronica Wang and SAS-ASMR, made illegal copyright strikes against a smaller channel, ‘Shookbang’, for parodying their content. As a result of this, the channel was forced to temporarily shut down, fearing further legal action and their real-life identity potentially being exposed. Since then, the entire YouTube community has jumped to their defence, including PewDiePie and Jeffree Star, to call out Veronica and SAS for unlawfully claiming copyright on Shookbang’s videos, since the content was protected by the Fair Use Law as it was ‘transformative’ in its reuse of the original clips. While the situation seems to have died down for now, with Shookbang back up and running a channel with 100,000 subscribers, (and a second channel of the same name with a further 17,000), the events have sparked a more general conversation about the YouTube copyright system and demonetization of content.
Before I get any further into it, I think it’s important to discuss what ‘fair use’ actually means. According to the official YouTube definition, fair use ‘is a legal doctrine that says you can reuse copyright-protected material under certain circumstances without getting permission from the copyright owner.’ These ‘circumstances’ fall under the realm of remix, news reporting, or criticism, so effectively you can use anyone’s content as long as you are doing so for one of those purposes. However, for example, simply re-uploading someone else’s video without permission would be unlawful. But the law is not black and white and questions remain unanswered: How long can a clip of someone else’s unedited song be used in a video before it becomes a violation of copyright? What if someone makes a video falling under the ‘criticism’ category, but completely slanders the original content by making hateful remarks? Is it legal for a person to record a cover of a song but use the original, unaltered backing track in their video? The law doesn’t provide a clear-cut answer, and that’s why it is so easy to abuse it.
Several YouTubers have recently announced their own personal struggles with the copyright system. Two of Cody Ko’s videos were actually taken down (although one has since been reinstated) because it was claimed that they infringed the fair use law, despite the fact that both of them could be described as ‘criticism’. Ryan Trahan, another popular commentary channel, had one of his videos claimed by Universal Music Group because a few seconds of Taylor Swift’s ‘Trouble’, a song that they have the rights to, could be heard in the background of the outro of his video. As a result, while the video was not taken down, Trahan was unable to continue profiting from it since all of the ad revenue generated after the claim had been made automatically went to UMG. One YouTuber, Gus Johnson, made a video entitled ‘YouTube’s content claim system is out of control’, after a video of his where he only talked about Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was manually copyright claimed by EMI, a branch of UMG, despite the upload not containing a single second of the actual song. What’s worse is that, while the creators are free to contest the claims made against their videos, the ultimate judgment of whether they constitute fair use is made by the original claimants, and why would they turn down free money?
The issue of false copyright has certainly gripped the website in recent weeks, but it raises some further, more worrying questions about our right to freedom of speech, with Shookbang being a testament to this; it’s terrifying to think what YouTube would be like if its users weren’t able to express their true opinion out of fear of legal action under false pretences. Furthermore, as Shookbang’s case has shown, the abuse of fair use by larger channels against smaller ones has the potential to deter new creators from entering the commentary/parody community; after all, 1,000,000 vs 1000 subscribers would be no contest. Most YouTubers seem to be making light of the situation so far and moving on with their content, but this does not mean we should forget what is happening behind the scenes; what was once a vibrant and creative platform that allowed anyone to have a voice has now become a dangerous place to be a content creator.