Fair warning, dear reader; this is going to be one of those posts that doesn’t really give you a definitive answer. At least, not in all cases.
The issue of copyright is one that has been a thorn in the side of copyright holders, content creators, and user-generated content platforms since… well, since user-generated content platforms became a thing. Using content that you do not own the rights to is a dicey business, and one that can land you in trouble with YouTube. But at the same time, there are situations where it is perfectly acceptable. And, of course, there are messy grey areas in between.
In this post, we’re going to do our best to cover all the basics, so, if you’ve been wondering how much of a video can you use legally, keep reading!
The Video Matters
The main reason that there is no definitive answer to this question is that how much of a video you can legally use depends entirely on the video, as well as other factors around the video. Let’s start from the good and work our way to the bad.
Public Domain Videos
Public domain videos are the best-case scenario when it comes to video content you want to use. This is because public domain content is completely free for anyone to use for any purpose. You can clip it, remix it… you can even repost it in its entirety, though YouTube will prevent you from monetising that kind of thing.
Public domain means that the copyright has expired, and the work has passed into the public domain. This also means no one can copyright it, however, works that incorporate public domain content can be copyrighted if they have been sufficiently modified from the original content.
If you can’t find public domain content that suits your needs, Creative Commons is the next best thing. You will need to pay attention to the specific licence, however, because there are several flavours of Creative Commons, and they all have different stipulations.
For example, a CC0 licence is, for intents and purposes, the same as public domain works. CC0 is a “no rights reserved” licence that can be used for anything and does not require attribution. There are also versions of the Creative Commons licence that require attribution, or that are free to use for personal work only, and so on.
Other Types of Free Licence
There are several other types of licence out there that will allow you to use content without worrying about the copyright, but you should always check the specifics of each licence. For example, the Against DRM Licence becomes void if DRM is placed on the work using the licenced content.
And here we get to, unfortunately, the most common type of content you are likely to want to use in your videos. The reality, most of the content will be copyrighted, and, depending on the copyright holder, it may be an almost impossible prospect to get permission.
If the copyright holder is a large corporation—like Viacom, or Disney—you can pretty much kiss goodbye to any hope of legally using the content. It’s not impossible, but if you can even get a response from them, they’ll probably ask for an extortionate amount of money.
If the copyright holder is another YouTuber—especially a YouTuber of similar or smaller stature to yourself—then your chances of getting permission go up somewhat. Whether they say yes will still come down to their preferences and what you intend to do with the content, but you should at least be able to talk to them about it.
Fair Use is a complicated topic that deserves more than a small section in this blog post, so we won’t try to cover everything here. To sum it up, however, the concept of fair use says that you should be able to use copyrighted material for limited and transformative purposes without the permission of the copyright holder. Some examples of fair use include commentary videos, and parody.
Unfortunately, there is no rigidly defined concept of what constitutes fair use, and it is not a law as such, but a defence. That means that fair use would not come into play until after you have been sued, and are in court defending yourself. Needless to say, companies like Disney are not shy about breaking out the lawyers, and they probably have more money than you.
So, while the concept of fair use is appealing, the practical nature of it means you can still fall afoul of copyright holders, no matter how reasonable your interpretation of fair use is.
Another problem to be aware of is copyright holders claiming content that they do not have the rights to claim. This can happen in situations where the content has similar audio to some copyrighted content, or where the copyrighted content features some public domain or Creative Commons licenced work. It is nearly always the result of YouTube’s Content ID system, which automatically checks for copyright infringement.
Unfortunately, there are no checks in place to verify that the “copyright holder” actually owners the copyright to the content they are claiming. In most cases, you should be able to counter-claim it and, as long as it was an honest error, the claim will be removed.
As a general rule, you should strive to avoid using content that you didn’t create as much as possible. Granted, there are situations where it’s just not possible, but there will always be additional baggage with content you don’t own, even if it’s just YouTube demonetising the video for re-using existing content.
If you do have to use content from elsewhere, be sure to check the copyright status of it, and pay attention to any licencing that might apply.
And, if you are relying on fair use, it’s best not to push the boundaries of the fair use description… unless that’s precisely what you’re going for, of course.
Top 5 Tools To Get You Started on YouTube
Very quickly before you go here are 5 amazing tools I have used every day to grow my YouTube channel from 0 to 30K subscribers in the last 12 months that I could not live without.
1. VidIQ helps boost my views and get found in search
I almost exclusively switched to VidIQ from a rival in 2020.
Within 12 months I tripled the size of my channel and very quickly learnt the power of thumbnails, click through rate and proper search optimization. Best of all, they are FREE!
2. Adobe Creative Suite helps me craft amazing looking thumbnails and eye-catching videos
I have been making youtube videos on and off since 2013.
When I first started I threw things together in Window Movie Maker, cringed at how it looked but thought “that’s the best I can do so it’ll have to do”.
I soon realized the move time you put into your editing and the more engaging your thumbnails are the more views you will get and the more people will trust you enough to subscribe.
That is why I took the plunge and invested in my editing and design process with Adobe Creative Suite. They offer a WIDE range of tools to help make amazing videos, simple to use tools for overlays, graphics, one click tools to fix your audio and the very powerful Photoshop graphics program to make eye-catching thumbnails.
Best of all you can get a free trial for 30 days on their website, a discount if you are a student and if you are a regular human being it starts from as little as £9 per month if you want to commit to a plan.
3. Rev.com helps people read my videos
You can’t always listen to a video.
Maybe you’re on a bus, a train or sat in a living room with a 5 year old singing baby shark on loop… for HOURS. Or, you are trying to make as little noise as possible while your new born is FINALLY sleeping.
This is where Rev can help you or your audience consume your content on the go, in silence or in a language not native to the video.
Rev.com can help you translate your videos, transcribe your videos, add subtitles and even convert those subtitles into other languages – all from just $1.50 per minute.
A GREAT way to find an audience and keep them hooked no matter where they are watching your content.
4. PlaceIT can help you STAND OUT on YouTube
I SUCK at making anything flashy or arty.
I have every intention in the world to make something that looks cool but im about as artistic as a dropped ice-cream cone on the web windy day.
That is why I could not live on YouTube without someone like PlaceIT. They offer custom YouTube Banners, Avatars, YouTube Video Intros and YouTube End Screen Templates that are easy to edit with simple click, upload wizard to help you make amazing professional graphics in minutes.
Best of all, some of their templates are FREE! or you can pay a small fee if you want to go for their slightly more premium designs (pst – I always used the free ones).
5. StoryBlocks helps me add amazing video b-roll cutaways
I mainly make tutorials and talking head videos.
And in this modern world this can be a little boring if you don’t see something funky every once in a while.
I try with overlays, jump cuts and being funny but my secret weapon is b-roll overlay content.
I can talk about skydiving, food, money, kids, cats – ANYTHING I WANT – with a quick search on the StoryBlocks website I can find a great looking clip to overlay on my videos, keeping them entertained and watching for longer.
They have a wide library of videos, graphics, images and even a video maker tool and it wont break the bank with plans starting from as little as £8.25 ($9) per month.