Why There Is Illegal Content on Youtube

Updated on August 14, 2017

Youtube, which is owned by Google, is filled with illegal content. It's estimated that there are 200 million illegal videos on the site. You can find full-length movies and TV shows from major studios like Disney. You can find full length albums from major record labels. You can find music videos, which can easily be downloaded in lieu of buying the videos from a provider like itunes. You can also find covers of songs, remixes of songs, song mashups, concert performances, and music video parodies that are all illegal and in violation of copyright law.

Yet no Youtube user has ever been sued for illegally uploading content. Copyright owners will from time to time have some content removed while ignoring others. For example, there could be 20 illegal copies of a song posted on Youtube but the copyright owner may only remove one or two. Why do copyright owners seem to look the other way despite the vast sums of money at stake?

The Problem for Copyright Owners

The title of a techdirt.com article "RIAA Spent $17.6 Million In Lawsuits... To Get $391,000 In Settlements?" might seem like it's the answer. There are too many ordinary people violating the law that simply don't have the money to pay damages. Copyright owners, or in this particular situation the Recording Industry Association of America, have to pay far more to lawyers than they could actually get in damages.

However, it isn't that simple anymore. Copyright owners do have a simple technology at hand, yet many of them aren't using it. The technology is called Content ID. If you upload a movie or song, Youtube can actually detect whether it contains copyrighted material or not. They could actually block the video right then and there.

And there are examples of this. The LGBT channel Logo TV hosts an award ceremony called the NewNowNext Awards. You'll have a hard time finding any content from this award show on Youtube because Viacom puts a block on it. No one could get away with uploading even a short clip of a NewNowNext video because it is effectively blocked from the moment of upload. There is no need to file a complaint with Youtube to have the video removed and no need for a lawsuit. The technology now exists but many copyright owners seem unwilling to use it. Why?

Content ID

A Wall Street Journal article titled "Reappearing on YouTube: Illegal Movie Uploads" said:

Why the movie studios didn't block the films by using a special YouTube program—called Content ID—for identifying their copyrighted content is a mystery.

They also said that spokespeople for the major studios declined to comment on why they weren't using Content ID on all their content. One problem is that Content ID is not 100% effective. I found some NewNowNext performances posted on the Youtube-like site Vimeo that had been uploaded by someone in Russia. Illegal content will still find it's way onto the web despite efforts to stop it.

One thing content owners are doing on Youtube is identifying illegal content and then earning ad revenue from it. Youtube automatically places the ads for the copyright owners. This may indicate acceptance that owners simply can't stop this problem and will choose to earn something from it.

Harlem Shake

The Billboard Rule

There's a further complication for the recording industry. Billboard has decided to count Youtube views when determining song placement on the all important Hot 100 chart. Official songs and videos count. But so do live performances, illegal uploads, parodies, remixes, covers and anything else related to the song. Any label that tries to remove new content will put its artists at a disadvantage on the charts. Billboard is effectively encouraging illegal activity by fans of artists and taking away the incentive labels have to fight it.

But Youtube can also be good for the labels. The various videos of songs posted on the site serve as free promo for the labels. A song that gets a lot of attention because of a parody or a creative remix will sell a lot more than a song that doesn't. An unknown producer named Bauer recently made a fortune when 30 second clips of his song Harlem Shake went viral. Large numbers of people had posted videos of themselves dancing to the intro and the popularity of those videos translated into sales. It's possible that all the free promo on Youtube actually helps to sell artists and their music. This may be one reason why record labels aren't putting a huge amount of effort into removing their music from the site.

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