Why Is There So Much Copyrighted Material on YouTube?

We’ve been asked by many a baffled YouTuber why they see so much copyrighted material that hasn’t been flagged for removal, while they themselves have similarly copyrighted videos pulled down for copyright infringement.

Of course, if someone else gets away with breaking the law, that doesn’t make it any more legal for you to do it too. But one thing is clear: there’s a thick grey line between what constitutes infringement and what doesn’t, and artists are terrified of the potential cost involved with inadvertently crossing it.

Why is there so much copyrighted material on YouTube?
Why is there so much copyrighted material on YouTube?

Flagged for Copyright Infringement: Not the Only Option

There’s a war brewing, with industry institutions and intellectual property lawyers on one side and advocates of the free music philosophy on the other, and that war is centered around the argument that paying tribute to another artist is all too often defined as copyright infringement when nothing but respect to the original creator was intended. But, as is often the case in war, it turns out there’s a third option that neither side wanted to acknowledge, one that has the power to make everyone happy: the YouTuber can get creative with existing material without having to tightrope-walk the line between derivative and transformative, and the original artist (or the company in charge of the artist’s intellectual property rights) still gets paid.

Remember the wildly popular JK Wedding Entrance Dance, where the bridal party rocks out to Chris Brown on the way into the ceremony? Sean Cole of Marketplace Money spoke to the head of marketing and digital media of Sony-owned Jive Label Group, who confirmed that, with the assistance of a click-through ad placed on the video, sales for Chris Brown’s single skyrocketed from 4-5,000 per week to around 50,000 per week.

Uploading your own music to YouTube eliminates the possibility of copyright infringement.
Uploading your own music to YouTube eliminates the possibility of copyright infringement.

Are Ads a Good Alternative to Takedown Notices?

Of course, if you’re Sony, 50,000 sales is chump change. But allowing copyright holders to opt for generating revenue with an ad, instead of tearing the material down automatically, is a great way to bridge the gap between creative artists and what some consider an overly regulated litigious  industry. For example, Tim Wu of Slate points out that Public Enemy’s hugely innovative (and heavily sampled) album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, in addition to revolutionizing hip-hop, contains so much sampled material that, if made today, it would cost so much in licensing fees that it likely would never have been made at all.

Rather than keeping the music industry barreling along in its current direction, perpetuating an atmosphere where artists feel like common criminals for sampling from another artists work in what they feel should be understood as the ultimate tribute, not theft, YouTube and Sony have come up with a refreshing way of balancing the rights of copyright holders with the freedom of new artists to create. Hopefully more companies recognize this and jump onboard.

How to Avoid Copyright Infringement on YouTube

How can you be sure that you’re not uploading material that will be considered copyright infringement?

First, the obvious answer: don’t upload music that isn’t yours. You automatically own the copyright to any music, images, or video that you create—and no one can claim those rights unless you allow them to.

But what if you’re not a musician? Consider looking for songs that carry a Creative Commons license. This type of license works alongside a standard copyright; the owner is still the owner, but by placing a Creative Commons license on the work, they preemptively give you permission to use it for certain purposes (each license is different), as long as you credit the owner.

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