Wednesday, May 4, 2016

When It Comes to YouTube, Google Is Only Half The Problem…The Other Half Is Major Labels And Publishers

It is common knowledge that the creative community has been discontent with YouTube for some time.  In recent weeks, a variety of articles have surfaced featuring various members of the music industry as they decry the paltry payouts issued by the streaming giant.1-5  This outrage is not without merit, for despite YouTube being the largest music streaming platform (in terms of both content and users), it is also the lowest paying.6-9  These substandard payouts stem from the price of YouTube ad space, along with the revenue splits employed by YouTube in distributing ad revenue.  Indeed, the latter is the bigger issue, as YouTube pays content providers a mere 55% of net earnings.10-12

It is unclear exactly how much YouTube takes off the top before splitting the remaining ad revenue, but it has been reported that this figure is 10%.13  Of course, without the ability to audit the company, it’s impossible to verify this with certainty, but if true, it means that YouTube is paying artists (and all content owners) 49.5% of the gross ad revenue.14  Importantly, when it comes to monetizing user-generated content, this percentage gets further reduced for the many artists who are dependent upon intermediary Content ID service provides that take commission on the content owner’s side of the earnings - for this group, payouts drop even further, typically between 37-42% of the total pie.15

Now, depending on the artist, there may or may not be labels, publishers, managers, etc with their hands in the pot on the artist side of earnings; but the literal amount that ends up in an artist's pocket is irrelevant from the standpoint of how big (or small) the artist pot is to begin with.  It’s one thing to assess a platform in terms of the revenue it generates, and another thing to assess the fairness of how that revenue gets divided.  Consider that iTunes, which has become the unofficial benchmark of revenue splits, pays 70% of gross earnings to the artist.16  Spotify does the same.17  Apple Music pays 71.5-73% of gross.18  And other services, such as Bandcamp, pay as much as 90% of gross to the artist.19  That is a substantial difference in comparison to YouTube, with important financial consequences.  

Google asserts that such comparisons are misguided,20 as download services and paid subscription streaming services are structurally different than a free ad-supported framework - instead, they argue YouTube is more akin to traditional radio.  Well, last time I checked you couldn’t turn on the radio and choose the songs you want to hear.  In contrast, YouTube is an interactive on-demand service…it may be different from other on-demand streaming platforms, but not in a way that justifies paying 55% of net revenues to creators.

So, how has YouTube managed to successfully implement an obviously unfair and exploitative system?  There are a few variables involved, three of which I will briefly summarize.

First, YouTube is able to facilitate the uploading of unauthorized user-generated content, while being legally protected under the “safe harbor” provision of copyright law.  In short, anyone can upload anything they want, and YouTube is not liable for their actions.

Second, the DMCA process, whereby a copyright owner can notify YouTube of an unauthorized video containing their work, with instructions for it to be taken down, is severely flawed in a variety of ways, ultimately making it useless as a method of keeping content off of the platform.21

Third, access to YouTube’s audio recognition Content ID System, which thoroughly addresses the above by identifying user-generated content on an automated and ongoing basis, is granted by YouTube only at their discretion.13,21  Accordingly, they have elected to grant access to just a subset of content owners, access which is conditioned upon consenting to the terms of Google’s label and/or publishing agreement.4,21,22  Essentially, Google leverages the value of Content ID to strong-arm parties into accepting what are widely held to be substandard deal terms.  For those denied access to Content ID (a substantial portion of applicants), and for those that refuse to consent to Google’s label / publishing deal, the only recourse is to engage one of a variety of independent services that will broker Content ID access in exchange for their ability to monetize your work.12,21

The upshot of these 3 variables is that it is impossible for copyright owners without direct access to Content ID to remove their content from YouTube.  And for those with direct access, they have begrudgingly accepted YouTube’s monetization terms in order to gain that access.  Consequently, the music industry has been stripped of negotiating power with respect to securing more equitable compensation from the platform.  It is a strategy part divide and conquer, and part blackmail - you can accept YouTube’s payout rates and make some money from user-generated content with Content ID access…or you can reject them and earn nothing, with no access to Content ID (in which case your content will often end up being monetized by others without your consent or participation).21

But there is a 4th variable, one which is just as important as the others, but which rarely (if ever) gets discussed.  While only a subset of content owners have direct access to Content ID, that subset is inclusive of the largest media companies - companies that include major record labels and publishers.  Even though YouTube succeeded in leveraging Content ID and the inefficiencies of DMCA to compel these companies into entering unfavorable licensing deals, those deals do not obligate said parties to monetize the content in question.  In fact, the “majors” are free to utilize Content ID in whatever manner they wish - monetize, track without monetization, or block all user-generated content.  Thus the majors, whose catalogs presumably account for the majority of music streaming on YouTube, possess the ability to effectively pull their catalogs from YouTube with the click of a mouse.  And make no mistake, a system wide Content ID block by the majors would create sizable ripples, changing the landscape of music streaming for all parties, major and non-major alike.  So why haven’t they?  Because they are pussies.  No seriously, they really are pussies.

Many of the music industry representatives complaining about YouTube’s low payouts in the press are the same people that are in a position to cut their ties - but instead of actually doing that, they choose to continue taking it up the ass from Google.  Now, don’t get me wrong, if someone wants to take it up the ass, that’s their prerogative.  But you can’t choose to take it up the ass and then start complaining about how your ass is all sore.

If you’re like me, you are perplexed by this behavior.  Surely the labels / publishers are comprised of intelligent individuals that see the absurdity of the current situation.  Even Google has publicly pointed out the obvious, stating in response to claims that YouTube unfairly devalues music: “Thanks to Content ID, record labels…can remove any or all user-uploads of their works from the platform on an automated and ongoing basis”.1  While this conveniently leaves out the fact that not all content owners have direct access to Content ID, their statement is 100% accurate as it pertains to major labels and publishers.  Moreover, the failure of labels / publishers to utilize Content ID to remove all of their material, or to at least cease all YouTube monetization of both direct uploads and user-generated content, renders them complicit in the exploitation that transpires, and it serves to reinforce and reward such behavior by Google.

So, why is the music industry continuing to monetize their content on YouTube when they object to what they’re being paid?  I can only speculate.  Maybe they are afraid of making Google angry.  Or maybe the people calling the shots at these labels / publishers have hidden loyalties to Google, while everyone else is unaware or powerless to stop the coup.  More than likely though, I suspect the real reason is that although they are unhappy with the revenue splits in principle, the amount of money being made is still substantial, despite being a fraction of what it should be…I think they simply can’t bring themselves to leave the money on the table and walk away.  But of course, that is precisely what’s required to get Google to the negotiating table.  You have to be prepared to endure financial sacrifice.  You have to have a spine.  You have to be willing to not be the bitch of a corporate behemoth.

Easier said than done, it would seem.  To be clear, I acknowledge that it can be difficult to walk away from sizable sums of money.  How much would you be willing to walk away from, for the sake of principle?  $10,000?  $100,000?  $1,000,000?  Many probably wouldn’t be willing to walk from any of these sums.  I get it.  After all, I am currently receiving YouTube monetization income, via indirect Content ID access.12  As much as I detest the conditions and circumstances that led to me receiving this supplemental income stream, I don’t detest having more money in and of itself.  Who can’t use extra money?

But at the end of the day, if you don’t want to be exploited and taken advantage of, you need to stop allowing yourself to be exploited and taken advantage of.  It’s pretty straightforward.  And the reality is that we’re not talking about a poverty stricken class facing a financial dilemma…we’re talking about major label artists and bands.  If Taylor Swift is making 5 million dollars in YouTube ad revenue, she’s making hundreds of millions elsewhere.  This is to say, it’s all relative and any potential ad income from YouTube is indicative of much greater revenue outside of YouTube.  They can afford to leave the money on the table.  And remember, for every dollar paid out to the music industry (reportedly $2-3 billion to date),1,23 YouTube retains an equal or greater sum; if there’s one thing that corporations deplore, it’s losing billions of dollars of revenue.

Now, I will grant you that it is convenient for me, one who does not have direct access to Content ID and therefore can’t lead by example, to argue that other people should cease YouTube monetization for the greater good.  But note that not one of the 34 million views to date on my personal YouTube channel is or has been monetized by me.  I assure you, if tomorrow I were granted direct access to Content ID, I would not hesitate to cease monetization of the now 209,000 user-generated videos that have been identified and their resulting 33 million average monthly Content ID views.  Why?  Not because I don’t want or can’t use the money, but because fuck you if you think I’m accepting 55% of net proceeds.

It’s worth considering too that in all likelihood, a system wide Content ID block by the majors would lead to increased traffic on other paid streaming platforms, all of which pay more than YouTube.  Of course, Google claims2,4 that YouTube is monetizing a substantial portion of music consumers who otherwise would not be willing to pay for music…but even if this is true, it just means that many of these consumers will find a different free streaming service, such as Spotify, whose free ad-supported tier payouts, while also controversial, are still higher than YouTube.  And sure, perhaps some of these consumers will end up resorting to piracy, or utilizing a non-paying streaming service, or simply consuming less music - so what?  What’s the alternative, to continue getting exploited indefinitely while lining the pockets of Google?  But let’s not forget the other possibility, that a system wide Content ID block ends up leading to a renegotiated and more equitable distribution of YouTube ad revenue…imagine that.

Of course, even if YouTube were to increase revenue splits comparable to its competitors, giving a minimum of 70% of gross earnings to artists, it may still remain the lowest paying music company with respect to the actual payments it disperses.  But that, in and of itself, is not the real issue at hand - after all, any comparison of this kind will always yield a hierarchy - someone has to be on the bottom.  Drawing conclusions based on total or individual payouts is highly misleading.  It’s about how revenue gets distributed, and the freedom (or lack thereof) on the part of creators to participate.  Thus, artists and music reps pointing to per stream rates, or earnings per X number of views, is a misguided approach.  Similarly, Google praising itself for having paid $3 billion to the music industry to date completely misses the point.  The exploitative nature of the exchange that led to that $3 billion is the issue at hand.  And while the overall amount that YouTube pays may be growing with every year,20 unless you fix the underlying inequity inherent in the formulation of those payments, you will only be compounding that exploitation.  So a more equitable revenue split will not only narrow the gap between YouTube and competing services, but it will also shift focus to the proper value of YouTube as a promotional and advertising space.

To that end, one could argue that user videos that contain music in the background (e.g. cat videos, sports videos, etc) constitute a partially new and unique revenue source.  At the same time, one could argue that music-specific YouTube videos cannibalize income from higher paying competing services.  Then there are the myriad variables that go into how ad payments are calculated per view, one of which is geography (e.g. a view in the United States is worth more than a view in Spain).  All of this complicates straightforward comparisons between YouTube and other platforms, but the bottom line is that if creators choose to participate in the service, they should reap a fair percentage of revenue from that participation.  I’m not, and I don’t think anyone is, anti-YouTube in principle…I’m simply against being forced to participate while being monetarily exploited.

I do concede that it’s within the realm of possibility that Google could react to a music industry revolt by revoking all direct Content ID access.  But such an action by Google would escalate the conflict, serving to greatly strengthen the legal argument and current lobbying efforts to rework the existing DMCA and safe harbor provisions.  The fact is that Content ID is the best defense that Google has in maintaining the status quo - to take that away from the majors would be to potentially shoot themselves in the foot, and it goes without saying that a successful DMCA “take down and stay down” revision would take considerable wind out of YouTube’s sails.

I will also concede that perhaps major labels and publishers began their partnership with YouTube in good faith that initial unfavorable terms would improve over time.  But even if that was the case, the ship has long since sailed.  What you have now is not going to change, for there is no incentive on Google’s part to do so…at the end of the day, despite stamping their feet in protest, the music industry is complying with what Google wants it to do.

And just to be clear, DMCA and safe harbor are most certainly in need of a serious overhaul - they can, and should, immediately be revised to properly apply within the current context of digital consumption.  This is particularly all the more pressing if YouTube is going to continue withholding direct Content ID access to so many content owners, therein stripping away their ability to abstain from the platform.  But this has no bearing on the fact that the largest sectors of the music industry already have the capacity to effectively and efficiently withdraw their catalogs via direct Content ID access - and there is no greater negotiating power than that.

So majors, you have a choice to make.  You can continue to do what daddy Google tells you to do, or you can grow a pair and have some dignity.  If you choose the former, so be it, but please shut the fuck up about your discontent moving forward…you have become the battered wife that refuses to leave her abusive husband, and it’s depressing to witness.  So right after you finish chastising Google for being evil, do us all a favor and stop being a bunch of pussies.

1 "Here's why the music labels are furious at YouTube. Again." Re/Code. April 11, 2016.
2 "Europe's divi-boss tells YouTube to cough up proper music royalties". The Register. April 19, 2016.
3 "Debbie Harry: "Music matters. YouTube should pay musicians fairly". The Guardian. April 26, 2016.
4 "Nikki Sixx launches campaign to get YouTube to 'do the right thing' over music royalties". The Guardian. April 24, 2016.
5 "Nelly Furtado: "YouTube pays more than nothing. That doesn't make it fair". The Guardian. May 2, 2016.
6 "What Major Music Streaming Services Pay Artists, Visualized". Co.Design. July 15, 2015.
7 "YouTube Music Is Growing 60% Faster Than All Other Streaming Music Services Combined". Digital Music News. September 14, 2015.
8 "How Much Do the Most Popular Streaming Services Pay Per Stream". Sonicbids Blog. July 20, 2015.
9 "YouTube - Not Spotify, Pandora Or Apple Music - Is The Number One Music Streaming Service Worldwide: Here's Why". Tech Times. July 8, 2015.
10 "YouTube to Tv Networks: No More 'Sweetheart' Ad Deals for You!" Ad Age. October 31, 2013.
11 "How YouTube Pays Artists by East Bay Ray". Janky Smooth. December 3, 2015.
12 "Shining Some Light On The Dark Side Of YouTube". Zack Hemsey Official Blog. January 28, 2016.
13 "YouTube Revenue Explainer". Music Tech Solutions. March 10, 2016.
14 10% off the top means content owners would be getting 55% of the remaining 90% of revenue, which equates as follows: .55 X .9 = .495 (49.5%).
15 Assuming a commission of between 15-25% on the artist portion of earnings (49.5% in this scenario), this would leave the artist with 75-85% of their original share: .85 X .495 = .42075 (42%) / .75 X .495 = .37125 (37%).
16 "Sell Your Music on iTunes". Tunecore Official Website.
17 "How we pay royalties: an overview". Spotify Official Website.
18 "Here's how much Apple Music is going to pay artists". Business Insider. June 22, 2015.
19 "Pricing". Bandcamp Official Website.
20 "No other platform gives as much money back to creators". The Guardian. April 28, 2016.
21 "The Dark Side Of YouTube". Zack Hemsey Official Blog. January 28, 2015.
22 "What should I do about YouTube?" Official Zoe Keating Blog. January 22, 2015.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Prim’s Cat: The Real Mockingjay?

Last night I watched The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1.  Am I the only one who was scratching their head at the sheer ridiculousness that was exhibited?  Not with respect to the dystopian future portrayed.  Not with respect to blowing up planes with exploding arrows, while the archer remains unscathed despite standing directly in the path of the aircraft’s machine gun fire.  I’m fine with all of that.  What I cannot get on board with is the behavior exhibited by Prim’s cat.  Let’s walk through the events that unfolded.

Katniss visits what remains of District 12, where she discovers her sister’s cat within the family’s former residence.  She then picks up and places the cat inside her satchel bag, as she peruses the house for other items to salvage, at one point opening the bag and tossing a picture frame in alongside the cat.  All things (and cat) in bag, she returns to District 13 (presumably by air since that is how she got to District 12 in the first place), makes her way through the compound to find her mother and sister, opens up the bag, and out comes the cat…a cat who has been shockingly indifferent to hanging out in a bag during the tumultuous journey over land and air.

At this point I turned to my wife and said, “this movie has lost all credibility”.

Ok, well maybe this cat hangs out in satchel bags devoid of breathable mesh screens all the time.  Maybe he spent his adolescent years at a military base where he was a frequent flyer.  And maybe he’s got an extremely serene disposition to top it all off.

But alas, the plot thickened.  Later in the film, residents of District 13 are rushed into an underground bunker to take shelter from an impending airstrike from the Capitol.  However, the bombing commences before Prim makes it into the bunker - you see, she had gone to retrieve her cat and is now racing down the stairs with the animal in her arms, in the midst of explosions, falling debris, and cascading water spewing from what I assume was a sprinkler system set off by the bombing.  At the last moment, they make it into the bunker in one piece, as the cat continues to hang out in Prim’s arms without ever having squirmed an inch; wet and seemingly content with the entire ordeal.

Now, I ask you, what kind of mystical fucking cat is this?  Unless the cat’s actually a robot, this is either the most relaxed cat in the history of the feline species, or the movie decided to cut out the part where the cat gets injected with Valium.  Or the movie was produced by dog owners who have no experience with cats and are strangely under the assumption that they are meditative beings capable of achieving extraordinary levels of zen.  

Regardless of how the cat came to be portrayed in this manner, rest assured - I don’t care how awesome that cat is (and I’ve known some pretty awesome cats in my day), Prim’s arms, body, and/or face should have been cut up and bleeding from the clawing that would have transpired as that cat lost its fucking nerve.  Merely managing to hold onto the cat at all during that fiasco would have been miraculous.  To do so and remain unscathed…perhaps the single greatest feat of all time.  To have the cat stay as calm as a summer afternoon nap throughout it all…fucking impossible.  The movie should have just made Prim a sorceress, as a magic spell would have been more believable than what was depicted.

But in case you thought that was the last of the cat, fear not, for at the end of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2, he makes one more appearance.  By now, days or weeks have elapsed since the bombing of District 13, a war has been waged, and many have perished.  Katniss is now back in District 12, trying to make sense of the chaos that has led her to this point, when lo and behold, the cat appears in the window.  He has traveled untold miles, through battlefields and ruins, persevered against bombings and starvation, and has finally made it back home.  In response to the cat’s truly heroic efforts, Katniss goes completely psychotic, unleashing all of her pent up anger onto the cat who has unknowingly become the symbol of everything she lost.  The screams escalate into attempted battery, as Katniss throws a glass across the kitchen with the intention of stoning the cat, all in a furiously loud and violent rage as she aggressively moves closer toward the cat…a cat who remains stoically silent and still in response.  He doesn’t run away; he doesn’t hiss; he doesn’t even flinch when the glass flies within inches of his face, smashing into shards upon contact with the countertop and backsplash…he just looks at Katniss, as if to say, “Katniss - I know - it’s not your fault”.


My wife turned to me and said, “that cat would never have sat there like that”.  To which I replied, “are you kidding me, if that cat did anything other than sit there, the movie would have been totally inconsistent”.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Shining Some Light On The Dark Side Of YouTube

Not too long ago, I wrote about my frustrations with YouTube - a platform that enables unauthorized uploads of copyrighted content (commonly referred to as “user generated content”, or UGC) - uploads that are often illegally monetized, as facilitated by YouTube, and the revenue of which YouTube shares and participates in.

There is also the matter of YouTube’s Content ID System - a digital audio fingerprinting system that is a necessary tool for copyright owners to police UGC, but a system that YouTube selectively allows access to (access which I was denied for reasons unknown), thus creating the ability of those with access to fraudulently utilize Content ID to illegally claim and monetize the content of those without access (with no mechanism in place for the rightful copyright owner to notify YouTube of the fraudulence in question or properly dispute it).

And then of course there’s the matter of YouTube, along with uploaders of illegally monetized UGC and parties misusing Content ID, keeping all the money that was earned as a result of the illegal monetization of copyrighted content.

I was repeatedly falling victim to the above (as detailed here), so I had a decision to make.  I could do nothing and let the anarchy continue.  Or I could engage an intermediary service to gain indirect access to the Content ID System.  While YouTube is extremely selective in granting copyright owners direct access to Content ID, there are a variety of independent companies with direct access, which broker indirect access to the common man.  As far as YouTube is concerned, anyone is free to deal with such “Content ID brokers”.

It is important to note that intermediary Content ID brokers all require monetization of UGC, for which they take a commission on the resulting ad revenue.  In this way, YouTube basically forces the hand of a copyright owner - join us (indirectly) and monetize, or otherwise let us get back to monetizing your shit without your involvement.

After considerable internal debate, I decided that as much as I dislike the online ad culture, I hate people hijacking and illegally monetizing my content far more.  Plus, I reasoned I could keep my official YouTube channel ad free, while only monetizing UGC - this would maintain an ad free user experience for fans that come to my channel, while also allowing me to earn money from the use of my music in unauthorized non-official videos - this seemed like an acceptable balance and appropriate compromise.

Ok, so what are the deal terms?  YouTube takes a flat 45% of ad revenue across the board.1  Already, I hate the deal.  There is no justification for YouTube’s cut to be that large.  None.  Yes, YouTube has bandwidth and server costs,2 and yes they are the ones selling the ad space - but they are also monetizing millions of videos, the content of which they don’t own and the creation of which they had no involvement in (at least for the vast majority of cases) - if the sheer volume of videos that YouTube is monetizing doesn’t sufficiently offset their costs (as is reportedly the case),3 they should raise the price of the ad space instead of taking a higher % from content owners.  Let’s all keep in mind that nobody petitioned for the creation of the service - it shouldn’t be the burden of content owners to keep YouTube afloat financially (especially since it is the unauthorized appropriation of their content that forms the foundation of the service). 

But it gets worse, because YouTube’s 45% cut is apparently of net profits, not gross.4,5  If you have a YouTube channel, try searching for the phrase “55% of net revenues recognized by YouTube” in your agreement…you might be surprised to discover that’s your share.  In other words, YouTube recoups its costs (whatever they are deemed to be by YouTube) from the gross ad earnings, after which it keeps 45% of what’s left.  I think we can all agree that is definitively monstrous.  To be clear, these revenue splits are in connection with direct monetization of a YouTube channel’s content by the channel itself - and so in theory may not apply to Content ID revenue distribution, where content owners monetize other people’s unauthorized uploads of their content - however, I have been told by more than one source that Content ID splits are identical.

So out of the remaining 55% that goes to the content owner, the intermediary service would then take their commission, the amount of which varies depending on the company and the negotiating power of the content owner.  Suffice it to say, there is a lot of bullshit when it comes to intermediary services, with some taking large percentages because they can, or because their clients simply don’t know any better.  So unfortunately, this can be an area where a copyright owner gets an additional layer of exploitation.  That being said, not all intermediary services are villainous, and some will agree to reasonable commissions.  

I should also point out that a commission is warranted in virtue of the fact that someone has to manually monitor and respond to claim disputes that arise when uploaders contest the validity of various Content ID matches - occasionally Content ID does get it wrong, but most of the time uploaders of UGC either don’t understand what is happening and ignorantly dispute a legitimate copyright claim, or mistakenly invoke the “fair use” provision of copyright law, or intentionally try to game the system by disputing what they know is a legitimate claim in the hope that the content owner won’t respond in time (if a claimant fails to respond to a dispute within 30 days, YouTube automatically releases the claim).  So there is certainly some labor involved, which is in direct relationship to the volume of copyright claims a given content owner has (the more claims, the more time required).

What I do object to however, is the principle that a content owner should be forced to engage an intermediary company to provide this service, and therein be forced to give up an additional % of revenue (whatever that % may be), especially when YouTube is taking 45% of net earnings.  For that amount, YouTube should be assigning their own staff to monitor and resolve claim disputes, without forcing content owners to finance the process - after all, it is YouTube that created the platform in which such a process is necessary in the first place!  And if YouTube doesn’t want to deal with the headache, preferring instead to outsource the task to intermediary services, so be it - but those service commissions should come out of YouTube’s share, not the content owners.  This much should be obvious to anyone with any semblance of ethics, but to the extent corporations are people, they be bitches…

So here I was, caught between a rock and a hard place.  On the one hand, I do not want to participate in an exploitative system.  On the other, there is no alternative to stop my ongoing exploitation at the hands of 3rd parties.  In the end, I can protest YouTube’s outrageous deal terms with respect to the videos I personally upload to my own channel by boycotting monetization - YouTube gets nothing, and I get nothing - fair enough.  But boycotting Content ID affords me no benefits whatsoever - if I’m not monetizing UGC, someone else is (or will be), so I can either ensure those earnings come to me or I can let them go elsewhere (YouTube gets its cut either way).  

Some might be tempted to think that perhaps there is still a moral victory in boycotting Content ID, but I would disagree - it’s simply a choice between letting one party exploit me (YouTube), and letting multiple parties exploit me (YouTube + UGC uploaders and Content ID abusers).  Generally, I think it’s wise to minimize the number of people exploiting you to the greatest degree possible.  And so, I have now joined the trend of monetizing UGC by enlisting an intermediary service.

Onwards and upwards…

After uploading my assets, Content ID got to work scanning YouTube for matches, a process that doesn’t finish overnight.  After 4 months of searching, as of this writing Content ID has identified 191,735 videos that use my music (all without authorization).  Some of these videos have millions of views, and some have less than a hundred.  All together, the collective views during the 4 months that Content ID has been tracking them amount to 128,370,896…and accordingly, we can deduce that the total combined views since the respective upload date of each of these videos probably exceeds 1 billion.  I have no way of knowing how many of these videos were monetizing my music beforehand, nor any way of determining how much money has been illegally made from my content to date.  However, I am now making money from these videos, and no one can illegally claim and monetize my music ever again moving forward.

I can’t help but be perplexed at the fact that YouTube previously denied my Content ID application, when it turns out there are literally thousands of unauthorized uploads containing my music.  I had no way of knowing this in advance, of course, but neither did YouTube…so what exactly was their evaluation based on?  Whatever the criteria, it appears woefully insufficient, as 192 thousand copyright claims and millions of UGC views per month certainly warrants direct access to the service (access that should not be conditioned upon signing an unrelated Google Publishing Agreement6,7).  It seems to me that assessing a creator’s need for Content ID requires knowing how many of YouTube’s videos contain that creator’s content, something which can only be determined using Content ID itself, and therefore, that YouTube should not prejudicially withhold access to Content ID on account of mere guesswork and assumptions.

Importantly, it turns out that the advertising revenue being generated is significant.  There are a variety of factors that determine how much money a given video earns, making it impossible to predict with any certainty what future earnings, or the earnings of others, will amount to; but the potential as a source of sustained income is clear.  Of course, not every content owner will have 192 thousand claims - many will have much less (and some will have much more), but with a more equitable distribution of ad revenue, it could make a measurable difference in the life of a struggling artist.  This is ultimately good news for an industry that is grappling with its transition into modernity, and for independent musicians hoping to make a living off of their craft.  YouTube has created a system that has the ability to positively contribute to the music ecosystem, and this should be embraced and encouraged - at the same time, YouTube is currently exploiting content owners by taking an unfair share of the pie, and strong-arming creators into take-it-or-leave-it deals while tacitly leveraging piracy as a consequence of not conforming.  

This should be decried at every turn, but too often, we’re instead exposed to claims of this or that creator making boat loads of money from YouTube revenue.  Yes, that’s true - you can make boat loads of money.  But what are the other players making as part of the deal?  That should matter to you.  You made 6 figures from YouTube, and I can potentially do the same?  Wow, that’s fantastic.  But think about it this way: if for every $1 you made, your “partner” was making $3, would you still feel good about that?  I’d hope not, at least not when it’s your content that is the bedrock of the earnings, and not when you were bullied and essentially blackmailed into being a partner.

So the question is, can anything be done to improve this state of affairs?  The short answer is, not really (at least not without changes to current copyright law).  Even if I remove all of my personal uploads from YouTube, it won’t have any impact on the 192 thousand unauthorized uploads containing my music.  It also won’t stop any of those users - and YouTube - from illegally monetizing my music.  For clarity, let’s review:

1.  Anyone can upload anything they want - if they upload copyrighted content without consent, YouTube is protected by safe harbor (i.e. “We said they needed to possess the necessary rights - we had no way of knowing the uploader didn’t own the copyright or have permission”).

2.  If the user monetizes their unauthorized upload, YouTube is (apparently) still protected by safe harbor, despite directly participating in and sharing the profits generated (a fact that continues to baffle me).

3.  Even if you’re willing to devote all of your time to finding unauthorized videos and sending YouTube DMCA notices to have them removed, not only is there not enough time in the day to complete this task, and not only will you have to indefinitely perform this task for the duration of YouTube’s lifespan, but in the best case scenario you will have only succeeded in taking down a small fraction of unauthorized videos, because the vast majority of UGC use copyrighted content anonymously (i.e. without crediting or listing the content in the video or video description).  So the exploitation and illegal monetization will continue in the shadows.

4.  The only way to locate all (or most) unauthorized content is by utilizing Content ID, presumably created expressly to solve the above problem.  However, YouTube won’t issue you a Content ID account - they will force you to go to an intermediary company.  And that intermediary company will require that you allow them to monetize the unauthorized uploads (otherwise there is no point in them being in business).  And either way, you have absolutely no control over the deal terms of that monetization.

The genius of YouTube’s methodology is that all paths lead to monetization.  In every scenario, YouTube earns money off of your content.  I can loudly proclaim from the hilltops that I want no part in their advertising monetization system, but I am absolutely powerless to prevent YouTube (through the actions of its users) from monetizing my content - it will either happen legitimately with my consent, or illegitimately without my consent.

There is only one solution that can address this, and it requires having your own Content ID account.  Armed with direct access, you could set the policy to “track only” - this would still place copyright claims on all unauthorized videos (preventing the uploader from being able to monetize the content), but it would also mean that no ads are placed on the videos…so you as a copyright owner wouldn’t make any money, but neither would YouTube.  Consequently, if every label / publisher / intermediary service / creator that has direct access changed their settings from monetize to track, then the lost revenue to YouTube just might be enough to get them to the negotiating table.  

Then again, Google earns unfathomable amounts of money overall, and might be content to simply wait out such a protest.  In response, all said parties would have to be prepared to switch from “track” to “block” (effectively pulling the content off of YouTube).  Consider that a very large percentage of YouTube traffic is music driven (it is apparently the largest music on-demand streaming service around),8-12 and the fact that music is used within an exorbitant amount of non-music-specific YouTube videos (e.g. home videos) - if you remove the music, you remove much of the incentive to go to YouTube, which undermines the YouTube culture, which lowers the value of the service to advertisers and weakens the brand overall … at that point, you stand a pretty good chance of motivating YouTube to resolve the issue, as they are likely too invested in the platform to let it wither away.

Of course, the above strategy requires coordination between multitudes of disparate companies and persons, in order to be effectively implemented en masse, and admittedly that is not likely to occur - but it remains possible nonetheless.  If it were to happen, there is also the risk that independent artists unaffiliated with a label / publisher might get left out in the cold, with YouTube negotiating non-standard deals for major players exclusively (and for all I know, maybe this is already secretly the case).  Regardless, the larger point remains - the entire YouTube edifice is built on a foundation of copyright owners’ creations, and to that end, is forever vulnerable to being dismantled at any moment - it just takes the will of creators to effect change.  While I enjoy making money as much as the next person, I would be more than willing to leave it all on the table.  What says you?

1 "YouTube to Tv Networks: No More 'Sweetheart' Ad Deals for You!" Ad Age. October 31, 2013.
2 "YouTube Standardizes Ad-Revenue Split for All Partners, But Offers Upside". Variety. November 1, 2013.
3 "YouTube still doesn't make Google any money". Business Insider. February 25, 2015.
4 "YouTube Revenue Explainer". Music Tech Solutions. March 10, 2016.
5 "How YouTube Pays Artists by East Bay Ray". Janky Smooth. December 3, 2015.
6 "The Dark Side Of YouTube". Zack Hemsey Official Blog. January 28, 2015.
7 "What should I do about YouTube?" Official Zoe Keating Blog. January 22, 2015.
8 "Forget CDS. Teens Are Tuning Into YouTube". The Wall Street Journal. August 14, 2012.
9 "YouTube as you know it is about to change dramatically". The Verge. August 28, 2015.
10 "YouTube boosted by music videos to pull behind Facebook". BBC. October 26, 2011.
12 "YouTube Music Is Growing 60% Faster Than All Other Streaming Music Services Combined". Digital Music News. September 14, 2015.