The Copyright Twilight Zone of YouTube

Posted By Derek Nance on Sep 2, 2014 |


One of my projects has and will always be pushing handbell groups to post videos of their performances on YouTube, and every time the issue of copyright comes up.  In the handbell world we really have two different copyright issues; original handbell music published by handbell composers, and handbell covers of music that isn’t originally written for handbells.  Every time the conversation over covers of copyrighted music comes up I cringe, because in today’s technology driven world copyright rules have shifted.  Before I go much farther, two important disclaimers I need to make:

  1. Nothing in this post, nor anything on this blog, should ever be construed as legal advice.  Only Intellectual Property Lawyers can tell you for sure what is and is not legal in the intellectual property realm.
  2. The following conversation only pertains to YouTube.  I do not know how other video sharing sites (Facebook, Vimeo…) handle copyright violations.

One of my favorite YouTube personalities to watch is Hank Green.  He and his brother John Green have been making videos on YouTube since 2007 and they have become a powerhouse in the YouTube community.  Besides having a following of millions of viewers, including myself, they started the first ever online video conference, VidCon.  All of this is to say they understand the YouTube platform inside and out.

In one of his recent videos Hank described the strange state of copyright rules on YouTube, where the technology YouTube uses to enforce copyright laws performs in the most possible manner, not necessarily the most legal way.  This strange state of copyright laws allows him to use a copyrighted piece of music, post it to YouTube, and pay what is in essence a retroactive licensing fee to the copyright holder.  I think it is well worth the 4 minutes it takes to watch.

The Content ID System YouTube uses to enforce copyright laws is massive and incredible.  Somehow the system is able to check every video uploaded to YouTube against a library of most of the worlds movies and music hundreds of times per second.

So say that three over-eager guys get really excited about a new piece of music they hear on the radio and decide to make a handbell cover of it.  They spend all weekend arranging, recording, and editing the piece of music.  They haven’t broken any copyright laws until they decide on how to share their work with the world.  They could attempt contact the record label that owns the music and try and get a license to share the music with the world, but being a small, unkown group that process could take a while.  So, they decide to upload the music video to YouTube.  Technically they just broke copyright law.

However, thanks to agreements between YouTube and many copyright holders, their video won’t get taken down and they won’t get sued.  YouTube’s Content ID system recognizes the video as copyrighted material and flags the video.  The record label then could pull the video down, but most of the time they will leave the video alone and instead monetize the video for themselves.  This means that any money made from ad revenue around the video will go to the record label that owns the copyright and not the guys who made the handbell cover.

Is that a legal system?  No.  Is it the best system? No.  Is this a way for musicians to share music and copyright holders to make money? Yes.

What this means for us as musicians is that we can take a deep breath and not let worries of copyright issues quell creative thoughts.  Handbell music is still in it’s infancy, and as musicians we need to push the boundaries of what is possible on the instrument.  But to make this growth happen faster, we have to share our creations.  We need to get feed back from other musicians, we need to get feed back from the general public, and we need to take and expand on each others ideas.  If someone gets a brilliant idea on how to arrange Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” for bells, they need to go for it and share the results.  Then someone else can take the best ideas from that arrangement for their arrangement of “Hey Jude” by the Beatles.  Then someone else can take the best ideas from those two songs for their own music.  This sort of feedback loop is the fastest way to grow the handbell community and reach new audiences with our art form.

Well maybe not entirely legal, for now YouTube gives us as musicians the freedom to build our art form by sharing our creations without the constant fear of litigation.

If you are really curious about more details on how Content ID works, Hank Green also made a 17 minute video showing how he deals with copyright claims on the back end of his YouTube channel.  It’s a fascinating look into the secret world of copyright rules on YouTube.

So for now I am going to continue to challenge bell groups to share their creations.  Let’s show the world and each other what is possible to do on handbells.  And don’t worry, the big record labels will still be able to make their money.

Cover Image: “The Möbius Melody” by Eser Aygün on Flickr.  Used under the Creative Commons License.