Foul Play


On one small corner of the infinite content landscape known as YouTube, a trio of friends joke, laugh, and pepper in profanities as they discuss their trade with one another. Despite the sizable audience listening to their broadcast, their candor about the games they’re playing and other YouTube stars gives the radio production a homely, inclusive energy.

Despite their initially jovial tone, the broadcaster’s spirits quickly sour when they reach the topic on everyone’s mind; the dreaded Content ID. “One of our animators…got slammed with one of those [claims],” a somber voice explains, “and YouTube is saying ‘we want you to prove that your footage of you speed-drawing your own characters is owned entirely by you…’ took him like a week to sort it out, and he had, like, ten pages of forms! Total nightmare!”

One of the fellow hosts chimes in to add his two cents. “There’s this company, Indmusic… they’re matching everyone who is Let’s Playing [Thomas Was Alone] because of the music. The composer of the music got on the phone with them, saying ‘I don’t want you matching this… stop harassing our customers,’ and they won’t. It’s a shit show.”

The three men on the podcast are “Let’s Players,” a category of YouTube users who deliver running commentary while video game footage plays in the background. “Pat” represents one-half of “Two Best Friends Play,” a comedic show which regularly pulls in hundreds of thousands of viewers. The hosts of Retsutalk and Retsupurae, Ben Whitfield and Michael Sawyer (respectively known by the names “Diabetus” and “Slowbeef”), extrapolate the form one step further by commentating on Let’s Play videos made by others. Their act is reminiscent of Waldorf and Statler, the two old men who once heckled The Muppet Show from the safety of their sky-high theater seats; despite upsetting the targets of their riffs, both Ben and Michael are well-respected within the community.

From an outsider’s perspective, riffing on individuals riffing on games sounds like a waste of time; why not find a more productive way to spend your time, or get a real job? Little do they know that for many YouTube users, spending hours playing and commenting on games IS a real job. Depending on the number of viewers they pull in, channels can make anything from bus change to millions of dollars every year, exceeding the salaries earned by most white-collar workers.

Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, also known as PewDiePie.

Of course, simply playing games on the Internet won’t make you a millionaire; such lofty figures are only earned by the most popular channels, and it takes a lot of perseverance, luck and an infectious personality to draw in the audience necessary for a livable wage. But through its Partners program, YouTube has made it possible for a new breed of entertainer to emerge and spend their lives doing what they love, without being shackled to an unfulfilling day job.

Unfortunately, the platform that gave rise to Let’s Plays is now the same force that threatens to ruin the livelihoods and careers of its users. In an attempt to protect itself from outdated media laws and the companies that conspire to abuse them, YouTube have implemented a new system intended to appease corporate wolves like Viacom and Universal without bringing video uploads to a grinding halt. This service, known as Content ID, could theoretically work in the favor of rights holders and YouTubers. Instead, Content ID has shifted the balance of power entirely to the large media conglomerates, leaving the users YouTube once placed above all else trembling under the iron fists of corporations.

Before it stepped on the toes of its users, YouTube was a simpler creation with a simpler ethos. Founded in February 14, 2005 by Steven Chen, Jawed Karim and Chad Hurley, it opened its doors to the public one month later as a simple video-sharing site. Users could post any video they wanted and share it with anyone, from their extended families to a child on the other side of the globe. Its ease of use and wide reach quickly turned it into a force to be reckoned with; one year later, its videos were receiving 100 million views daily, and it was soon scooped up by Google, the search engine giant.

With hundreds of hours of footage uploaded every minute (according to YouTube) and millions of dedicated viewers, Google soon discovered the dangers of an open platform. When users can upload anything, they won’t stick to cute cat videos and impressive skateboarding tricks; songs, concerts, television shows, pay-per-view events and even full-length movies were also finding their way to the site, bypassing the traditional paywalls content creators and distributors rely on. YouTube tried asking users to avoid violating copyright laws, but sterner actions were soon needed as everyone from Warner Music Group to sports teams bore down on the company with expensive lawsuits (among health-related cases Xarelto lawsuits are same essential and money/time consuming). The “Wild West” era of YouTube simply couldn’t last in the modern legal system.

Dodger Leigh, who posts under PressHeartToContinue on YouTube.

Under the pressure of mounting charges, YouTube began deferring to rights holders whenever they had a complaint over a particular video. WMG, Universal and others were given the power to issue copyright claims over certain offending videos, removing them from the circuit of public consumption. Users could contest such claims, but unless they could successfully argue that their videos fell within fair use or didn’t use the material at all, uploads would remain locked.

While they were fighting off hefty fines and orders to hand over users’ data, YouTube quietly changed the nature of its content (and the lives of hundreds of budding young video creators) by announcing a “partnership” program. If a particular user (soon referred to as a “channel”) qualified for the program by creating original content, they would share the revenue generated from ads displayed before, during and after their videos. It was a bold gambit to improve the content of the site by compensating its lifeblood, and while it was certainly a steep hill to make anything significant from each video (as of 2013, the average was $2.09 for every 1000 views), that would quickly add up for videos that attracted large audiences.

The gambit worked; channels that brought in the big views turned their owners into Internet celebrities, earning sizable incomes through sheer popularity. Shows that would never quite fit on television networks, ranging from a teenager’s video blog to an expert CGI animation team, found their niche on a platform perfect for delivering entertainment in bite-sized chunks. YouTube even escaped the confines of the computer, spreading its videos to smartphones, tablets and even Internet-enabled TVs. It did everything it could to ensure that YouTube was THE place to upload and watch online videos, the ubiquitous king of the block.

As large studios and basement dreamers pined for their chance at riches in a burgeoning market, an unlikely candidate emerged in the form of user-captured video game footage. People seek out game footage on YouTube for a multitude of reasons; some want to see an unvarnished look at the game to inform their own purchasing decisions, while others simply relive memories of a bygone era by watching someone else play through one of their favorites. Maybe you even seek out footage for something like Duke Nukem Forever, well aware of the game’s awful reputation but eager to gawk at a trainwreck.

John Bain, also known as Totalbiscuit.

As game footage rose in popularity, the focus soon shifted to the people playing the games. Certain channels knew how to use editing tools and put out attractive-looking videos, while others became known for the soothing sounds of their voices. Still others emerged as true reviewers, critically evaluating games with the charm and humble nature of a high-end public access show. As each type of gaming-focused channel grew in number and popularity, being a one-trick pony wasn’t enough; users like “TotalBiscuit” and “Northernlion” emerged, combining criticism, entertainment and a slick radio voice all enforced through snappy editing and an air of professionalism.

Before long, one behemoth rose over the rest; Felix Kjellberg, better known as “PewDiePie,” knew how to attract an audience. From gleeful cackling to screams of abject terror that could easily wake a neighborhood, Felix knows how to react to whatever reaches his screen. The Swede’s over-the-top reactions have enlisted over 23 million viewers to what he affectionately calls his “Bro Army,” making him the biggest channel on YouTube (yes, beyond the “real” stars like Miley Cyrus or Arcade Fire). 23 million subscribers doesn’t guarantee 23 million views on every one of his videos, but earning several million watches every week translates to millions of dollars every year. The content can be pretty questionable at times (screaming about in-game monsters “raping” you runs the risk of insensitivity toward victims of actual sexual assault), but Felix also involves himself with charities, distancing his on-screen persona from his public actions.

Cutting users in on monetization proved to monumentally shift the content on YouTube, but it further enraged the major media conglomerates, unsatisfied with the powers they were given. Though they could take down whatever they chose (providing they could prove they owned the content), neither the studios nor YouTube could keep up with the rate of videos uploaded. Google faced deflecting another round of lawsuits from a venture that was already prohibitively expensive, so they brought out their secret weapon, a new layer to YouTube that was in the works since 2007; Content ID.

The concept behind Content ID seems simple enough; copyright holders upload their protected material to YouTube’s servers, which archive the data and scan it piece by piece. Whenever a new video is uploaded to YouTube by an average user, YouTube’s servers will compare the data to their Content ID library, searching for matching video, audio, or both at the same time. If Content ID happens to find a match, the copyright holder is given the power to track the video’s views, block the video entirely, or put their own ads on the video, which override any ad revenue that the channel owner was receiving from that particular video. Channels can still protest any strikes given by Content ID, but the videos are pulled for a lengthy “review” process to determine whether the channel’s stance has any merit.

It’s easy to see why such a system would benefit YouTube. Keeping up with every single video released is nearly impossible without an expensive team dedicated solely to the task, and even then, videos would likely slip through the cracks. Having an automated system run the checks, with the content searched and the results of positive matches determined by rights holders, makes everyone in that specific circle happy.

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What works for the corporations and YouTube doesn’t exactly work for channels, sadly. Without a human hand behind each decision, fair use practically becomes null and void; a computer isn’t the best at making such a subjective, case-by-case judgment. 30 seconds of music in an hour-long show can bring down the entire video, and footage freely distributed to promote a game becomes a target if the wrong person edits it into their work.

Google claims they only give Content ID powers “to content owners who meet specific criteria,” but their criteria has proven to be quite loose, to the detriment of many a channel. Two companies in particular, Indmusic and Tunecore, tend to claim rights to copyrighted content that simply isn’t theirs to claim. Even with the explicit permission from the creators of specific games and soundtracks, the pair often throw groundless Content ID claims at specific videos, leeching the ad money for themselves while the channels fight through a lengthy copyright battle dictated on YouTube’s own terms.

Just how widespread is this abuse? Well, Terry Cavanagh, creator of VVVVVV, published footage of his own game only to receive a Content ID claim from Indmusic. He fought the claim for 30 days, but his insistence that he had the right to his own work was rejected by YouTube. Indmusic has no legal ground to stand on, yet through the aid of Content ID, it steals the revenue from projects it had no part in.

Aside from skimming off the revenue earned from channels, nefarious “content owners” can levy Content ID claims to silence fair criticism of their work. John Bain, the aforementioned TotalBiscuit, found that certain developers were issuing claims on videos that earnestly tore down their games in a “buyer beware” fashion. He only got the strikes removed by making a big public fuss, and spreading the word of the developers utilizing a broken system to go after legitimate scrutiny.

Suzy Hanson, co-host of Table Flip.
Suzy Hanson, co-host of Table Flip.

Since YouTube channels can’t rely on the contesting system to protect their videos, many end up joining larger networks, like Polaris, Maker, Fullscreen, etc. These networks work closely with YouTube and claim to do the brunt of the content policing themselves; a video out of such networks runs through the necessary legalese to ensure copyright law isn’t being infringed.

Of course, joining up with said networks often involves signing large contracts, much like a musician would sign a deal with a record label. As one would probably guess, some contracts are better than others; the Machinima network is notorious for treating its partners like garbage, and while they only had the best of intentions, Polaris and Maker (now owned by Disney) made a few remarkably poor judgement calls that led to the infamous “GAME_JAM” debacle.

YouTube, once a bastion for content that defied norms and pushed envelopes, is now subject to a broken system that oversteps even the cold hand of copyright law. If you want to produce content, you either have to sign an agreement with a potentially abusive network or bare yourself to the vultures who use Content ID to line their own pockets. Instead of accepting that a monumental responsibility like content gating is better left to humans, the robotic substitute treats every YouTube channel as “guilty until proven innocent,” which discourages new stars from rising up and demotivates YouTube veterans from taking risks.

Perhaps the best solution to this mess isn’t entirely human-controlled, but we must accept that the current systems in place simply aren’t capable of determining elements crucial to copyright law, like fair use and actual ownership of content. Until then, YouTube is sowing its own seeds for destruction, leaving the crown open to challengers who don’t treat their users like criminals.

Before the Retsutalk podcasters end their episode, they deliver some final thoughts on Content ID. “I feel really bad for anyone who gets into it right now,” Pat angrily exclaims, “because… YouTube won’t treat you right, if you don’t already have a really long-standing, good channel… the system is fucking busted… it’s only going to get worse from here. So hey, did you know that Two Best Friends Play is going to make a website soon?”