Fighting YouTube copyright claims from trolls and scammers


Google has some of the world’s most advanced technology, ranging from advanced search algorithms, satellite imaging, to artificial intelligence. Which is why it’s surprising to see their video service, YouTube, so susceptible to copyright trolls and scammers. Even if you have written authorization to use background music, video clips, or sound clips, there is a good chance your scanned agreement will be met with silence. For nearly a decade scammers have monetized videos they do not own, with rights owners oblivious to the fact someone has pirated their film. More recently, YouTube’s copyright claims have turned from an enforcement mechanism for creators into a tool for scams and extortion.

What is a copyright claim?

A copyright claim is a way for the rights owner to tell YouTube their work has been pirated by someone else. The process, born out of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, is part of the notice-and-takedown system to remove copyright infringement from the internet. It is a pretty simple process where the alleged rights owner fills in some basic information then YouTube takes it from there. YouTube protects itself from millions in potential legal judgments under the safe harbor provision if they remove the infringing work. The other party has a chance to answer or provide proper licensing paperwork. YouTube may allow the alleged owner to remove the work or to take the monetizing dollars and keep up the video.

Those with too many copyright claims or strikes can be suspended, banned, prevented from uploading new videos, and prevented from monetizing their videos.

How can copyright claims be used wrongly?

As mentioned above, YouTube has not prioritized user-friendly parts of the monetization and copyright process. Sometimes referred to as a copyright troll, someone can claim to own audio and visual clips with little to no verification form YouTube. In the same way a pirate can make money off of ads for uploading a popular film to the streaming service, a pirate can take a quieter route and claim ownership of a clip found in hundreds of YouTube videos. They file copyright claims and monetize the existing videos knowing a certain percentage of pages will not respond or will respond improperly.

Is it really that easy? Yes. One copyright troll might have dozens of YouTube accounts to prevent suspicions. If one account gets suspended for too many frivolous claims, the troll has backup accounts, potentially 100s.

The Verge has has covered an even bigger problem for YouTube creators: extortion.

An anonymous blackmailer has caught at least two YouTube creators in a scheme involving cash ransoms and esoteric copyright laws. Last week, both creators shared stories of how their channels were being threatened with a third copyright strike — and the possible termination of their channels — from an anonymous extortionist. The scammer offered to reverse the strikes in return for payment to a bitcoin wallet (which, as of this writing, remains empty) or to an adjoining Paypal account (that has since been deleted).

The copyright claim system, created to empower creators, is now used against them. YouTube additionally does not have a good way to reach out to a customer service representative. Even if fraud is clearly evident in the claim, it is not simple to get someone to so much as look at it.

Fair use and copyright clearance

The first step is finding out if you have improperly used a clip. A quick Google search will find thousands of people facing a copyright claim over royalty-free music. The more paperwork creators keep on the music and video clips they use, the better. Properly licensing and clearing copyrights is integral to any YouTube page, especially those with plans to expand. One issue is even when properly licensed for the United States, you may be blocked form using it in the rest of the world. Your video can be blocked even if you purchased the song via iTunes, you are not monetizing the video, or if you give credit to the original artist in the description. A qualified intellectual property attorney can develop a copyright policy to limit accidentally infringing another copyright.

You may remember this 2007 video of a toddler dancing to the Prince Song “Let’s Go Crazy.” Universal Music Group (UMG) filed a takedown for the video, claiming the focus of the video was the Prince song audible in the background. UMG’s carelessness cost them.

YouTube, which prioritizes taking down potentially infringing videos instead of allowing themselves liable to extensive legal costs, removed the video. After a lawsuit, the video owner was able to sue UMG. It was a win for creators but YouTube has not gotten better for creators. YouTube will still not mediate copyright claims and will typically side with the claimant as it shields them from expensive copyright claims.

Investigating the claimant for trolls

If you are certain you are legally using the music, the second step is investigating the claimant. Do they have no videos and use a nondescript, free email address? Or is the claimant popular for filing aggressive, overreaching, and improper claims? The former may be a troll account. The later may be a company or rights house that uses YouTube’s piracy search Video ID to tag any and every potentially infringing video. Some of the more aggressive ones may be considered copyright trolls, claiming ownership in a work they do not own or otherwise putting in a claim under fair use. The smaller troll has probably not “accidentally” sent you a copyright claim. The bigger companies will use Claim ID to automatically find potentially infringing use and will file a claim whether you have licensed it or not, so their claim may be on accident.

What to do when facing a copyright claim

There are a number of potential options when facing a copyright claim on YouTube’s service, or even after losing a copyright dispute with another party. An extortion scheme should be reported to the authorities as it is criminal. Otherwise, your response will likely be based on providing the proper license or ownership rights, your belief that it is fair use, or proof that the material is in the public domain or otherwise royalty-free and available for commercial use.

We recommend consulting with a qualified attorney to determine copyright clearances with the disputed work or to provide a fair use analysis that can be provided to YouTube. Winning with YouTube early is the quickest and cheapest way to win a copyright claim.

What to do when losing a copyright claim

The copyright claim is just the first step and does not mean you have actually infringed a copyright. In fact, the claimant is likely happy monetizing your video instead of trying to sue for a big judgment. The bigger problem is losing those ad dollars and putting your account in danger. You can reach out to a claimant directly to better explain the situation and provide any documentation regarding the clips, requesting they remove the copyright claim on your video. The more reputable claimants are certainly more receptive to fixing their mistakes.

If that does not work, you will need to discuss your legal options with a qualified intellectual property attorney. You may have a legal claim for filing an improper takedown notice, similar to the video creator that had Prince in the background of her video. Additionally, you may be able to prove the claimant was not the copyright owner. With a positive finding, you may have your copyright strikes reverse and account privileges restored.

If you want a legal audit of your YouTube page’s intellectual property practices, or are facing a YouTube copyright claim, contact one of our attorneys to learn more about your legal options.

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