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Anyone who has ever clicked a link to a YouTube video, only to see a message that the video was removed or blocked due to “copyrighted content,” has seen YouTube’s Content ID system in action. For musicians, Content ID can be a valuable way to ensure you’re profiting fairly from your own creations. It can also be a real headache if you specialize in covers or compilations, or if the Content ID algorithm thinks your work sounds too much like someone else’s. The algorithm behind Content ID is similar to the algorithm behind apps like Shazam and Soundhound to compare the audio from a recently uploaded video to other existing videos.
Here’s what musicians need to know about YouTube Content ID.

How Does YouTube Content ID Work?

When a video is uploaded to YouTube, the site’s Content ID algorithm scans the video and compares its audio content to “every upload on YouTube,” according to YouTube. If the algorithm decides that the uploaded work

  • is registered in their system
  • or if it is too similar, or a match, to a work in its database,

then it sends a claim notice both to the uploader and to the administrator of the registered copyright in question and ads may run to monetize the content.

A Content ID claim notice is not, itself, a notice that copyright is being infringed. Think of it instead as YouTube raising a question: “The audio in these two uploads is really similar. What’s going on?” If the video user receives a claim notice but responds that they have the right to use the music, they can click to dispute the claim. If the administrator reviews and reject the user’s dispute, the user can appeal. If that appeal is rejected a second time, then it becomes what’s called a “copyright strike.” Receive three copyright strikes and your account, along with any associated channels, is subject to termination. All the videos uploaded to your account will be removed and you will be barred from creating new channels.

For the Musician: How Copyright Administrators Protect Your Music

As a music licensing company, we get front-row seats for many of the copyright battles that play out on YouTube every day. In many cases, the problems arise not because of malintent but because of misunderstandings, and flaws in the design and assumptions baked into Content ID.

For musicians trying to build an audience around their work, YouTube can be a challenging place, especially because digital distribution agreements add a layer of complications — but protection for artists, as well. Most professional artists whose work appears on YouTube actually have their copyrights administered for them, usually by a digital distribution company that opts into Content ID on the artist’s behalf.

Let’s use a hypothetical to illustrate the point. Imagine YouTube had been around in the 1950s, around the time Elvis signed on to Sun Records. When the label released Elvis’ cover of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” in 1954, it likely would have uploaded a video featuring that recording. Sun Records, through a digital distribution agreement with Elvis, would have been the copyright administrator for that recording of “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” So, if an Elvis fan had later uploaded a video of themselves lip-synching to the song, both the fan and Sun Records would have received a claim notice.

Fast forward to today. Let’s say another gifted musician from Memphis were trying to make it big, and she concluded that licensing her music to content producers was the perfect next step in her professional career. YouTube would prefer — and actually recommends — that the company licensing her music act as the copyright administrator for her work.

So, imagine this artist’s pre-cleared song appears in a car commercial, and the car company uploads that commercial to its official YouTube channel. Further, imagine that song wins the artist a few fans, one of whom then uploads a video of themselves lip-synching to the song. YouTube would probably send a claim notice to the fan asking “What’s going on here?” The benefit for the artist is she never has to weigh in. The licensing company can handle the dispute — and assure the car company that nothing is wrong — on her behalf because they act as the copyright administrator.

What Options Does Content ID Offer When Someone Uses Your Music Without Permission?

The Content ID claim notice that a copyright administrator receives will typically offer several choices about how to proceed, according to Envato. These include:

  • Blocking the video from appearing on YouTube or on sites that link to the video.
  • Muting the audio. The visuals will stay on YouTube, but the music will not be heard in that video.
  • Monetizing the video by asking YouTube to run ads with it, providing the copyright administrator with a share of the ad revenue.
  • Tracking the video’s views and shares.
  • Clearing the claim. In effect, clearing a claim says: “It’s OK. Don’t do anything.” No further action is taken, and the video in question stays as is.

YouTube has several partner platforms, like AdRev and Audiam, that provide additional help with the Content ID system as well as tracking and monetization tools. In some situations, an administrator may get a Content ID notice even if they’ve already worked out acceptable terms with the other party. YouTube will not know about a licensing arrangement until someone tells it. The Content ID notice is YouTube’s way of asking users whether a license or other deal exists.

What If Content ID Misidentifies Your Work As Someone Else’s?

Like many online attempts to control or manage information, Content ID did not work smoothly when it was first implemented. When it first debuted in 2013, according to Paul Tassi at Forbes, Content ID didn’t just ask “What’s going on?” Instead, it automatically started funnelling ad revenue from the uploaded video to the creator of the work that video appeared to match.

In 2016, YouTube switched to a method that held these funds only if a claim was disputed, Allegra Frank reports at Polygon. However, the Content ID system still isn’t perfect — and it can misidentify works. Composers, for example, receive high volumes of claim notices on their work when they use sounds from popular stock music libraries.
Today, YouTube claims that the Content ID system resolves 99.5 percent of all music copyright claims on YouTube videos, according to Paul Resnikoff at Digital Music News. The system even starts by scanning uploads against a user’s other uploads to ensure a duplicate wasn’t accidentally added to the site. Nonetheless, mistakes do occur, and the Content ID system is prepared. Should an administrator receive notice that a video is “too similar” for the algorithm but was in fact nothing like the protected work in real life, the administrator can easily clear the claim and notify YouTube of the mistake.

But what if an original, exclusive-rights work is flagged by the system as “too similar” to an existing work on YouTube? In this case, the administrator will be facing the Content ID notice provided to later uploaders. This notice will, in essence, ask for an explanation. For instance, the administrator can explain

  • that they have a license,
  • that the work falls under copyright “fair use,”
  • that the soundalike work is in the public domain, or
  • that the algorithm has simply made a mistake, and the two pieces are not at all alike.

YouTube also provides options for disputing a Content ID claim if necessary. By offering an intermediate step between “do nothing” and “copyright strike,” the Content ID system makes it easier for musicians to control how their original works are used and what happens when those works are used.

images by: Mariana Vusiatytska, Christian Wiediger, Wenni Zhou

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