There was a time when earning money from YouTube seemed like a dream come true. In the early days of the partner program creators were thrilled to be receiving any sort of compensation for their content. How times have changed.
Today, there’s a whole industry built around YouTube, with careers and livliehoods that depend on Google’s revenue-sharing program. If you need proof of how serious YouTube money has become, look no further than Benjamin Ligeri, the YouTuber who’s suing Google over lost income and content ID errors.
In a lawsuit that names Viacom, Lionsgate, and Google, Ligeri alleges that Google’s unfair handling of copyright claims has cost him substantial amounts of income. Ligeri is claiming that copyrighted footage uploaded to his channel BetterStream is covered by fair use rules which permit the use of copyrighted material for ““criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and/or research.” Ligeri believes that despite being well within the bounds of the fair use exemption, his video content was unfairly targeted by Google’s sweeping automated content ID system.
One of several claims filed by Ligeri concerns his uploading of footage from the Lionsgate film The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. The footage earned his channel a copyright strike which Google subsequently refused to recind upon appeal. Ligeri has also tussled with Viacom over what he characterizes as a “critique” of their 2014 film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
In his suit, Ligeri maintains that by upholding copyright complaints from rights holders, and offering those rights holders the option to remove or monetize his videos, Google has violated his right to fair use. A lack of transparency in the content ID system combined with YouTube’s all-or-nothing user agreement, says Ligeri, effectively allows rights holders to steal revenue from content creators through a Google sanctioned process.
Ligeri believes that YouTube favors the rights of movie studios, television networks, and other powerful rights holders because they make more lucrative partners than independent content creators. Not a totally outrageous assumption given YouTube’s recent desire to curry favor with mainstream Hollywood. This lack of neutrality, he claims, is a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that governs the application of copyright laws online.
Taken altogether, it’s a big claim against the worlds largest video sharing platform and unsurprisingly, it comes with a big price tag. In addition to $10,000 in nominal damages for the loss of his time and content, he is also seeking $1 million in “special damages” from the search giant for punitive purposes and to cover his legal costs. While he makes some interesting claims about the way YouTube balances the rights of its creators with those of the corporate entertainment industry, it’s worth noting that this isn’t his first rodeo. Back in 2008, Ligeri sued YouTube for 1/500th of its total revenue as compensation for the traffic he felt his content brought to the site.
If his suit is found to have merit, YouTube would need to fundamentally overhaul both content ID and its copyright claims process. A more equitable distribution of power would likely be welcomed by YouTube creators, many of whom have been burned by the current easily manipulated system. However, it would also be a major blow to the delicate pact YouTube has formed with studios and other rights holders, who tolerate YouTubers’ liberal use of their content in exchange for sweeping power over copyright enforcement. It’s a sweetheart deal that has inconvenienced some creators, but which has also allowed YouTube to thrive despite often existing in the grey areas of copyright law.
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