Thanks to Google AdSense, anyone can post a video to YouTube and make money. That clip of your pet snail lip-synching to Rihanna might not make you a millionaire like PewDiePie. But popular YouTubers, whose videos regularly draw hundreds of thousands (sometimes millions) of views, can easily pull in six figures a year. Yes, for a growing number of people — not all of them living in their parents' basement — YouTube is a full-time job.
Which makes this latest development at YouTube all the more upsetting. Some of YouTube's hardest-working content creators, including Channel Awesome (about 440,000 subscribers), I Hate Everything (630,000 subscribers) and Eli the Computer Guy (660,000 subscribers) have seen their videos arbitrarily pulled from YouTube and their AdSense accounts suspended by what they believe is a broken and unfair YouTube copyright protection system.
First, some background. It's against the law to post videos on YouTube that include copyright material, such as music, movies and TV shows. But plenty of law-abiding YouTubers incorporate short clips of movie trailers, Vine videos and video games under the guise of something called fair use.
Fair use is a slippery legal statute, but it generally protects YouTubers who want to use portions of copyright material when producing a movie review, a satire or a news broadcast. The problem is that YouTubers and copyright owners don't always agree on what is fair use and what is foul play.
Here's Where It Gets Crazy
Still with us? Good, because this is where the controversy kicks in. The current YouTube copyright protection system lets copyright owners flag and take down videos without any input from the content creator. There's an appeals process, but frustrated YouTubers say that it's slow, riddled with technical errors and devoid of any human response from YouTube.
Here's the worst part. In the weeks or months that it can take to resolve a copyright dispute, not only does the content creator not get paid for their work, but the copyright holder can collect the ad revenue that should be going to the YouTuber. In the first weeks of 2016, these takedowns skyrocketed, and YouTubers couldn't get a straight answer.
“Rules are being made up and they're not being explained to us,” Doug Walker, the creator of Channel Awesome, complained on YouTube (where else?). He couldn't collect money on any of his videos for three weeks due to an unexplained copyright “strike” against his channel. “We have over 350,000 subscribers on YouTube. We've been around for years. If this could happen to us with no explanation, no reason why, and weeks of no pay ... what chance do people putting up their family videos have? What chance do people just starting off and trying to make a living have against this?”
The comment sections have lit up with supporters lambasting YouTube for its “guilty until proven innocent” policy. And for its part, YouTube is starting to pay attention. In a public post on YouTube's help forum dated Feb. 24, a member of the YouTube Policy Team promised users that they “monitor video takedowns closely” and that user feedback has caused them to “look closely at our policies and helped us identify areas where we can get better.”
YouTube knows that it has a vested interest in keeping its users happy and fostering free expression. Back in November, Google's legal team even pledged to defend YouTubers against copyright claims in instances that clearly qualified as fair use. (Google owns YouTube).
“We're doing this because we recognize that creators can be intimidated by the DMCA's counter notification process, and the potential for litigation that comes with it,” wrote Fred von Lohmann, copyright legal director for Google. “We believe even the small number of videos we are able to protect will make a positive impact on the entire YouTube ecosystem, ensuring YouTube remains a place where creativity and expression can be rewarded.”