YouTube's real pirates: multinational companies that claim ownership over public domain videos

My latest Guardian column, "The pirates of YouTube," documents how multinational copyright-holding companies have laid false claim to public domain videos on YouTube -- videos posted by the nonprofit FedFlix organization, which liberates public domain government-produced videos and makes them available to the world. These videos were produced at public expense and no one can claim to own them, but multinationals from CBS to Discovery Communications have done just that, getting YouTube to place ads on the video that deliver income to their coffers. What's more, their false copyright claims could lead to the suspension of FedFlix's YouTube account under Google's rules for its copyright policing system. This system, ContentID, sets out penalties for "repeat offenders" who generate too many copyright claims -- but offers no corresponding penalties for rightsholders who make too many false claims of ownership.

Malamud's 146-page report from FedFlix to the Archivist of the United States documents claims that companies such as NBC Universal, al-Jazeera, and Discovery Communications have used ContentID to claim title to FedFlix videos on YouTube. Some music royalty collecting societies have claimed infringements in "silent movies".

These companies' claims – there are hundreds of them – have the potential to generate black marks on FedFlix's YouTube account, and these black marks could lead to automated punishment from YouTube. Accounts that generate claims can be suspended or deleted, or lose the right to mark videos as being available as Creative Commons or public domain files.

YouTube offers very little help for FedFlix. ContentID's dispute resolution mechanism allows FedFlix to contest these claims under only three circumstances: first, ContentID has generated a false match (that is, the video isn't what ContentID thinks it is); second, the uploader has the right to the file, as demonstrated by written permission from its proprietor; or third, the use is acceptable under the US doctrine of fair use, or its counterpart in other laws, fair dealing.

The pirates of YouTube


  1. Twice now I’ve tried to monetize a music video that I made out of found 8mm footage and both times I’ve been denied by YouTube, with them claiming I can’t prove ownership of the footage. When I say “found” I mean bought film reels of old home movies from junk shops and captured to digital myself. There’s not a copyrightable moment of footage on there. I physically possess the only reels in existence. And yet, under the threat of my YouTube (and possibly my Gmail) account possibly being negatively affected, I’m hesitant to try again. I guess I did all that complaining just to say that the system isn’t very good, and if you’re not a corporation, you have to tread lightly.

    1. It doesn’t matter if you have the only copy, it doesn’t mean you own the rights.

      If they’re old home movies, and the time period hasn’t been too long, then the families that shot the videos own the rights, not you.

      There are special cases I believe if the rights owner cannot be traced, which may be the case here, but I think YouTube are correct when they state that they can’t verify the ownership of the videos.

      What makes you think you have the rights to them?

      1. I had the same initial reaction, but assuming that Tom’s in the US and these videos date to the 60s or early 70s, its likely that they *are* public domain, since US videos of that vintage required a formal copyright registration (IANAL).

        1. Actually, home movies are largely unpublished works and so their copyright duration is the creator’s lifetime plus 70 years.

          Of course, I doubt that YouTube did the due diligence to determine that Tom didn’t own the material. It probably was just a knee-jerk flagging of the content.

          With the putting the A/V Geeks archive films on YouTube, I’m running into the same problems with bogus copyright claims on public domain material. It is very frustrating, and like Tom, I’m now afraid that I’ll not only lose my YouTube account, but my Gmail account will be lost.

          1. Actually, home movies are largely unpublished works and so their copyright duration is the creator’s lifetime plus 70 years

            Even unregistered pre-’78 ones?

          2. I wonder how much innovation and freedom of expression is stifled because people are worried they are going to lose their email as “punishment” from Google?

            Google is a monopoly and needs to be dismantled.  And, no one tell me how Google “earned” their way to the top… they used tax payer money to get there.


            And this is just the tip of the iceberg.  Just like AT&T, Google has profited from its collusion with the CIA and other government entities that help protect it and foster its growth. They help the government spy on its own citizens (see “recorded future“, etc, etc.) and they get protected from said citizens. Quid pro quo

            Your own tax dollars are used against you.

  2. This is similar to what “copyfraud” groups such as Kessinger Publications do on Google Books: apply ISBN #s and make copyright claims to thousands of books that are well within the public domain, and cut off the public’s rightful open access to them.

    1. I got a video that I found in public domain, and used the imagery for a music video. YouTube claimed it was someone else’s and allowed them to put ads on my video. Movie is “D.O.A.”

  3. “Hey Tim, I have this great idea for making money!”
    “What is it, what will we manufacture and create for the world, making additional jobs building, marketing and selling our thing?!”
    “Make?  Oh, hell no, we’ll just say we own stuff and then people give us money when they want to buy it.  Also, check out my new car, I said it was mine at the parking lot and then just took it!”

  4. I find it telling that the possibility of “invalid claim” is not in the list.  “false match” is something different, something more accidental or innocent.  It makes me think if there the risks involved in false accusations were as high as actually being guilty, this thing would be more likely to police itself (of course, the money available to pay lawyers is still lopsided).  
    Maybe that’s what SOPA needs:  a risk of momentary damages or even jail time for false accusations.

    1. I agree; intentionally claiming someone else’s property as your own when it is not, and depriving them of access to it is a “theft” or “conversion” by any ordinary definition. Just because the “someone else” in this case is the public does not make it any less a crime.

    2. Libel? Probably not in this situation, but when a professor is falsely accused of having pirated his lectures, and the accusation is sent to his employer… After all, a professor’s reputation can be substantially harmed by a false accusation of inappropriate copying.

      Would need UK-style libel laws, but there are several countries with those.

  5. Living in Germany,  the regularity of seeing “This video cannot be viewed because GEMA doesn’t want you to see it” (GEMA wanted youtube to pay them and their artists 12 cents per streamed video) has led me to suspect that more videos are being blocked than they have the right to block.

    On any given day over the last month, a good 20% of youtube links I click are unavailable in Germany, and I’m not looking for any music videos.    Obviously, there’s no way for me to know if they have the right to block these videos in Germany or not, because I can’t see them.    But it would in no way surprise me to discover that they were blocking content they didn’t have a right to block.

    1. I think twenty percent is low. In my (subjective, anecdotal) opinion (I know; redundant) it’s closer to forty.

      Cory, have you written anything on GEMA? Would you? Please? I don’t know where to begin, but they really seem to be heavy handed.  They even blocked Sita Sings the Blues:, which Nina Paley had released under a Creative Commons license.
      They seem to be blocking random videos that *may* contain copyrighted content. Of course, youtube is cooperating with them, and no one seems to be able to do anything about it.


  6. I wonder what the legal consequences for Google could be in a situation like this. It seems like they have some liability here, certainly they have enabled these injustices and have a moral duty to stop participating in the defrauding of their users. Do no evil motherfuckers!

  7. Youtube refuses to deal with my issue too. I have downloaded public domain encodes of Nosferatu and Potemkin off of and then I added a soundtrack of my own (which I made myself). Some company claims they own the video, which is baloney, even in the USA the video is PD and the source is pretty flawless.

    What it means on youtube is I have these 2 glaring complaints and I can’t properly license my video as CC-BY.

  8. Youtubes ContentID is a fantastic technical achievement, they even proudly tout it in some TED video

    Yeah, proudly touting a system used to discriminate the public and favor the big content industry, warranted or not, without any kind of safeguard or checks or balance. They’ve bent over backward and crawled the RIAA/MAFIAA/IFPI/WIPO so deep into where the sun doesn’t shine, they’ve probably forgotten there’s even a “public”.

    1. It’s irrational to assume that there is no middle ground between bending over backwards for big corporate interests and no regulation whatsoever, which is what it seems like you’re espousing.

      Not trying to shift blame here, it’s obvious that Youtube needs more options for people to contest these claims, but there’s a difference between a system that mostly works great and needs some minor modifications, and a system that’s fundamentally broken.

      1. Oh sure there would be some “middle” ground. Unfortunately the law does not allow for that middle ground. Once a counter notice has been countered under the DMCA, youtube is required by law to keep the content down until the courts resolved the dispute. The bending over backwards part is that youtube implemented one system after another until the MAFIAA stopped whining. They where in no way forced to implement it to the very liking of the big three. But of course unlike youtube users, the MAFIAA has their army of pet politicians, lobbies and proxy organizations like the RIAA, MPAA, IFPI, WIPO, WTO and BSA and just set them to twist googles arm until youtube did what they wanted.

  9. I had this problem with a video of a band I shot (with permission) playing an original song. IODA claimed copyright but didn’t pull the video so presumably they want to put ads on it. They also blocked it in Germany. I checked with the band and they said they have never licensed, or sold the rights to the song and have no afiliation with IODA. I contested and I got a reply saying: “rejected by the rights holder.” There’s no obvious path beyond the initial contestment. Kinda frustrating.

  10. That seems to be the thing that is needed- a system whereby the party claiming to be the rightsholder has to actually prove it before anything is done. Especially something like Youtube where the uploader at least makes no profit whatsoever from it.

  11. If anyone has details on the “Music Publishing Rights Collecting Society”, I would love to know who or what that is!  I have over 500 videos on the YouTube machine, mostly of my friends playing live music.  YouTube uses the name “Music Publishing Rights Collecting Society” on several copyright claims against my videos.  Most recently, the “Music Publishing Rights Collecting Society” made copyright claims for my friend’s live performance of Silent Night, the two hundred year old Christmas carol. While this is obvious fraud or piracy, all of the copyright claims from the “Music Publishing Rights Collecting Society” seem dodgy to one degree or another.  They seem to have no existence outside of YouTube.  Is the “Music Publishing Rights Collecting Society” a scam constructed by YouTube, itself?

  12. I’ve had Music Publishing Rights Collecting Society falsely claim copyright on my videos too. Mozart, dead for 200 years. Nope, there’s no avenue to dispute the claim.

  13. I’ve set up multiple YouTube accounts over the years.  The accounts where I “infringed” the worst but stayed away from criticizing corporations were never shut down.

    The accounts where I “infringed” the least but dared to criticize corporatists were permanently shut down in short order time and time again.

    If you don’t think corporations are also using copyright as an insidious means to quietly censor and cow the populace, then you aren’t experimenting with separate accounts.

    Try it.

  14. Big content wants to control the internet. That means it wants the means to take down anything it doesn’t make money from (as well as anything that criticizes it) without any interference. That’s what all those laws were about. Why are people so surprised when big content uses the laws it lobbied for for the purpose they intended?

  15. They hang the man, and flog the woman
    Who steal the goose from off the common,
    But let the greater villain loose
    Who steals the common from the goose!

  16. I find it disheartening that there seems to be no way of changing the situation.

    We say “HEY, you have no right to do that!”
    They say “So?”
    then there’s silence, and nothing changes.

  17. Can’t you just return fire: accuse the multinationals of piracy and claim ownership in exactly the way they did–but do it not as the original poster, but as a third party?

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