YouTube Has a Copyright Strike Problem — and It’ll Sue to Fix It

The company has decided to sue someone who had allegedly weaponized its copyright system for extortion

Photo: Unsplash/YouTube

YouTube’s worst-kept open secret for years has been the ease with which copyright strikes on the platform can be weaponized to quell dissent or — in extreme cases — to extort people. Now the site has decided to be open about it, in the most public way possible: a lawsuit.

The site has lodged a suit in the Nebraskan district court against someone it claims used YouTube’s copyright strike system to allegedly extort money from creators. In the documents, first found by AdWeek’s Shoshana Wodinsky, YouTube claims the defendant, Christopher Brady, “threatened to send additional fraudulent notices to YouTube and to cause the wrongful termination of users’ YouTube accounts unless the users pay him off.”

A section of the lawsuit filed by YouTube.

According to YouTube, the video sharing website receives “thousands of DMCA takedown requests each week” online, plus more “by email, postal mail, and facsimile.” Dealing with the backlog costs YouTube millions of dollars.

The copyright system can be gamed easily because YouTube has, until recently, taken a relatively hands-off approach to any rights claims. The way the system works automatically trusts that the person lodging the complaint has a valid reason to file a complaint, and puts the onus on the uploader to defend themselves against the claim, no matter how spurious.

And as with any system which can be easily reverse-engineered, less upstanding creators in the hypercompetitive world of YouTube will take any advantage they can get over their peers.

“I think this is really good,” says YouTuber Justin Whang. “A lot of people have been abusing YouTube’s DMCA system lately, and someone getting held accountable for doing that will make people think twice. It’s encouraging to see YouTube itself make the move, since a lot of YouTubers simply can’t afford to take someone to court on their own.”

YouTube alleges Brady is using copyright laws to extort money from creators, including examples in the filing of messages Brady supposedly sent to two YouTubers:

That won’t be news to anyone who has posted on YouTube before.

“This is nothing new and is certainly happening right as we speak,” says Antonio Chavez, owner of the Memeology 101 YouTube channel. “Companies and individuals use the copyright system to siphon money from content creators on a daily basis, claiming videos that do not contain assets owned by them. Because the copyright system so broken, these companies and individuals get away with it because even if the uploader disputes the claim, the entity doing the claim in the first place is the one that says if the dispute is valid or not, which makes no sense.”

“In a short decade, YouTube’s open nature and massive reach has made it ground zero for copyright,” says Ashkan Karbasfrooshan, founder of WatchMojo, a YouTube channel that has previously raised the issue of copyright stikes. “Combined with Google’s monetization prowess, it’s given an incentive to some to abuse ContentID tools that are intended to protect rights holders.”

For months now, creators have complained that they’ve been hit with erroneous copyright strikes by large companies as a method of making money — as in the case of a gaming YouTuber whose own voice was claimed as copyrighted material by a third party — or by peers looking to try and hobble their competitors.

Big movie companies have even been alleged to have used copyright strikes to quell diseent or criticism. In January, Joe Vargas, a film critic who posts on YouTube, claimed that Lionsgate used copyright strikes maliciously to stop criticism of a trailer for the movie Hellboy.

YouTube does its best to implement the DMCA in a way to protect rights holders while respecting creators’ rights on the platform, explains Karbasfrooshan — but it’s walking a thin, tricky tightrope.

“It’s hard enough for YouTube to make all sides happy when those sides are acting in good faith and acting within their legal rights,” he says. “When someone like Christopher Brady allegedly recognizes that YouTube’s policies create loopholes that could be abused in bad faith for unlawful gain, such acts pose a material risk to YouTube’s business while harming creators unfairly and unlawfully.”

YouTube — which came to popularity off the back of its own willingness to overlook copyrighted material uploaded to its platform, as demonstrated by a lawsuit it settled with Viacom in the early days of the site — has tried to finetune its copyright rules lately.

Last week it introduced tweaked rules around copyright contests over music that it said was designed to reduce the number of erroneous claims made that harmed creators, which come into force next month. Combined with aggressively pursuing people it thinks are abusing the system through the courts, this could indicate a shift in YouTube’s approach to copyright.

FFWD

Getting you up to speed with the world of online video

Chris Stokel-Walker

Written by

UK-based freelancer for The Guardian, The Economist, BuzzFeed News, the BBC and more. Tell me your story, or get me to write for you: stokel@gmail.com

FFWD

FFWD

Getting you up to speed with the world of online video

Chris Stokel-Walker

Written by

UK-based freelancer for The Guardian, The Economist, BuzzFeed News, the BBC and more. Tell me your story, or get me to write for you: stokel@gmail.com

FFWD

FFWD

Getting you up to speed with the world of online video

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