If you've gone to YouTube to watch an unofficial upload of a TV episode, or even a single scene from your favourite anime, you've probably seen the weird things uploaders do to stop YouTube from taking down their videos. Your show might be sped up a bit, the voices pitched down, the video flipped horizontally or covered in digital snowfall. Maybe you suffered through it, recognising that this degraded quality is a necessary sacrifice to avoid YouTube's copyright bots. The bad news is, it was probably completely unnecessary.
Cultural critic Mike Rugnetta says that all this video editing is just superstition. YouTube relies on good relationships with the companies that own TV shows, movies, and music. So the site spent a lot of time and money developing a Content ID system that can recognise pretty much anything a person can recognise. (It helps that most of the videos are helpfully labelled with the right show and episode title.) He tells Lifehacker, "People go to great length to circumvent copyright measures, think they have beaten Content ID, when in fact they just uploaded content that Content ID wasn't looking for."
These uploaders might be wrong, but they're not crazy. Years ago, it was much easier to fool YouTube's algorithm. "I remember people who set up blogs and entire disposable YouTube channels just to test the system," says Rugnetta. Since YouTube will shut down an account with too many copyright strikes, the stakes are high for frequent uploaders.
But as YouTube grew, so did its resources, and its need to keep business partners happy (and avoid lawsuits). Now YouTube lets anyone register their content with Content ID and hunt down infringers. The algorithm errs on the side of false positives: The site even took down computer-generated static because it sounded like an existing video of static. Rugnetta explores the chilling effect on fair use in "Automated Copywrongs," an episode of his podcast Reasonably Sound.
Still, uploaders try all kinds of editing tricks. Rugnetta made a playlist of anime uploads that warp videos in an attempt to escape Content ID. The list has been up two weeks, and five out of eight videos have already been blocked.
Many more uploaders add disclaimers like "No copyright intended," which are even more useless, because there's no human making these judgment calls - just the relentless, unforgiving algorithm. If content "gets past" Content ID, it's because the content owner isn't looking for it - or has told YouTube to let infringing uploads stay up. Content owners can opt to just slap some ads on the video and profit from it.
The good news is that plenty of content owners choose the more lenient options. Some content doesn't even get an ad slapped on. Rugnetta points to TheFlamingShark, who uploads full episodes of popular anime, embedded inside videos of him watching and reacting in real time.
The genre is called "Blind Reaction," and it's in a grey area of fair use. That might mean no copyright holder ever challenged TheFlamingShark, or that he successfully argued his video is commentary, and therefore legal fair use.
Rugnetta thinks one of three things happened:
1. This dude got DMCA'd, counter-noticed, and won
2. This dude doesn't monetise his videos, and the rules that Whoever-Distributes-Cowboy-Bebop has set up say "If they're not running ads on our work, let 'em be, that's fine"
3. Cowboy Bebop isn't in the fingerprinting database
"What I think is UNLIKELY," he says, "is that a human being has watched this video and decided, using their human brain, 'this is fair use, let it be.'" As for the algorithm, these commentary videos definitely wouldn't fool it. Either the copyright holder isn't shutting down unauthorised uploads, or they did and TheFlamingShark had to fight to get them reinstated. (TheFlamingShark hasn't replied to a request for comment.)
So when you're uploading some content that belongs to someone else, don't bother slowing it down or flipping it. You can try adding your own video commentary, but you might have to fight a takedown notice. If you lose that fight, you might lose your channel.
Then again, you could always upload to Bittorrent instead.