If you’ve been around the creator side of YouTube for long enough, you will undoubtedly have heard the term “Content ID”, but what is YouTube Content ID? YouTube Content ID it is an automated system for detecting copyrighted content being uploaded to YouTube. There are many ways of using this system to protect your videos and earn more money from other uses using your content.
Content ID came has been in use on YouTube in some form or another since the early days of the platform, with it first being pressed into service in 2007.
As of 2016, tens of millions of dollars of development had been sunk into Content ID, which had, by then, overseen billions of dollars in payments to copyright holders.
Why is YouTube Content ID Necessary
The world of intellectual property has, it’s fair to say, struggled to keep up with the changing landscape of technology. Unfortunately, the fallout from this is often tech companies having unrealistic expectations placed on them by outdated copyright law.
Digital platforms that feature user-generated content—like YouTube—have towed a precarious line over the years. They are not presently considered legally responsible for copyright infringements on their platform. If that were to change, the landscape of YouTube would change with it, and dramatically so. If YouTube were to be legally (and, by extension, financially) responsible for copyright infringement by its users, they would have to severely restrict what could be uploaded.
Fortunately, this has not come to pass. And, in an effort to ensure it never does, YouTube does what it can to ensure copyright infringements are dealt with. Of course, with mover five hundred hours of video being uploaded every minute, being proactive on the copyright infringement checking front is not exactly something you can assign a team of vigilant curators to.
YouTube does adhere to the US 1988 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which allows copyright holders to notify YouTube of infringements so that they can be taken down (with a right to appeal), but this is not a workable solution for large scale copyright holders—like record labels and movie studios—who would have to sink considerably resources into looking for these infringements.
Unfortunately, these large scale copyright holders are also the ones with the financial and political power to bring about the kinds of changes that would see YouTube made responsible for copyright infringement, and so it is those whom YouTube essentially need to mollify.
Enter Content ID.
What is YouTube Content ID?
Essentially, Content ID works by creating a digital fingerprint of the content uploaded to the platform. This fingerprint can then be easily compared against new content being uploaded, and if that new content is identical or sufficiently alike, it is flagged as a copyrighted material.
We’ll get into what happens next below.
The road to Content ID was not a smooth one. Over the years, several large corporations have sued YouTube with claims that the video platform has not done enough to combat copyright infringement.
In the most well known of these cases—a lawsuit from Viacom demanding $1 billion in damages—YouTuber were forced to hand over twelve terabytes of data about the viewing habits of viewers who had watched content on their site.
Who Can Use Content ID?
In order to make use of Content ID, you have to meet a series of specific criteria that, in practice, make this functionality only available to large corporations, though being a large corporation is not an explicit requirement.
Part of the criteria is that the content you wish to run through the Content ID system is content that can be identified by Content ID. And you will be required to provide evidence that you do in fact have copyright ownership of the content in question.
What Happens if an Upload is Flagged by YouTube Content ID?
The first—and possibly most important—thing to clarify is that Content ID instances do count against the uploader. This is probably the single most significant benefit for YouTubers who find themselves on the wrong end of a copyright claim. Previously, an upheld copyright claim would result in a strike against the channel, and enough strikes would result in things like demonetisation, suspensions, and even bans.
This is still the case for content that does not fall under the Content ID umbrella, but for those that do, the uploader is warned before the content goes live, and no punishment is carried out against the channel.
From there, the uploader has a few options. They can delete the upload altogether, perhaps to reupload a modified version at a later date. They can let YouTube try and remove the copyright infringing material from the video (this is not always successful), or they upload anyway and let the copyright holder’s choice of action take precedent.
As for the copyright holder, they also have a few choices for how to deal with Content ID’d content. They can choose to block the content, which will prevent the upload from going public. They can choose to allow the upload but monetise it, meaning they will receive the revenue from the video. Or they can choose to let the upload go ahead and let the YouTuber keep the revenue, but the copyright holder gets access to the viewership statistics.
All the above assumes that the Content ID is correct. If the ID was erroneous, the uploader can appeal it and, usually, the Content ID flag will be withdrawn, though the system is not perfect, as we shall get into next.
Problems With Content ID
As with any sufficiently large system, Content ID is far from perfect. There have been many instances over the years of the system failing in notable ways, either through unfortunate oversights or malicious intent.
For example, there have been reports of alleged instances where malicious actors have managed to gain use of the Content ID system and used it to claim the revenue of channels and content that belong to someone else.
Perhaps one of the more notable instances of Content ID going wrong was a situation in which Sony Music asserted copyright claims on over a thousand videos featuring compositions by the classical composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. Needless to say, Sony Music—whose parent company were founded in 1946—did not have the copyright to Bach’s compositions, given that he had died some two hundred years earlier.
There have also been instances that fall somewhere between the two above examples. As seems to be all-too-often the case with large corporate copyright holders, Deutsche Grammophon decided to abuse their position of financial power.
A professor uploading several classical music performances—all of which featured compositions whose copyrights had expired—received several copyright violation notices from YouTube. Most of them were successfully appealed, but Deutsche Grammophon decided they wanted to enforce the copyright which they no longer had (if they ever did).
The Main Flaw for Creators
This situation highlights possibly the biggest problem from a creator’s perspective; the decision-making process. Essentially, YouTube wants to be as hands-off as they can get away with.
Everything they do regarding filtering and guidelines is not driven by some all-encompassing goal to make YouTube a particular way, it is driven by certain business interests. In this case, the primary interest is keeping powerful corporate copyright holders happy so that they don’t come after YouTube and try to force them into a position of culpability for the copyright infringements on their platform.
The net result here is that the Content ID system can be used by anyone who meets the criteria, and any Content ID flag can be appealed by the uploader. However, if the alleged copyright holder enforces their claim, YouTube immediately steps out of the equation.
The alleged copyright holder is presumed to be in the right, and it is then on the uploader to seek legal vindication before YouTube will consider overturning the Content ID flag. Needless to say, when the uploader is an individual professor and the “copyright holder” is a corporate entity, the corporate entity usually gets their way.
Content ID is far from perfect, but unfortunately, it’s the best solution there seems to be at the moment.
It’s worth remembering that people and companies who take someone to court will often sue for the most they can get, and when the person on the other side of the copyright dispute is an average individual who might have uploaded one infringing item, there isn’t much in it for the copyright holders to justify going to court, so they settle for blocking or taking YouTube revenue.
However, if YouTube were responsible, and it was they who would be taken to court in a copyright infringement case, the copyright holders would be rubbing their hands together at the thought of a substantial pay day.
And if the infringing uploads weren’t stopped, YouTube would soon turn into a black hole of legal expenses.
In other words, without Content ID, we could be looking at a bleak future where uploading on YouTube is so restrictive that the platform would be a shell of its former self, if not closed down altogether.