There are often question marks over the legalities and practicalities of using content that you didn’t create your YouTube channel. For many situations, the answer is quite clear. For example—if you want to just upload an entire modern movie that is still in copyright, the answer is a resounding no. You will get a copyright strike for that, and possibly worse if you persist.
For other situations, the answer may be dependent on what you mean by your question. For example, can I upload public domain movies on YouTube? From a legal standpoint, yes. Absolutely. But let’s reframe that question. Can I make money uploading public domain videos on YouTube? No. No you cannot.
The context of the question is important, because if you are just looking to upload the video with no ulterior motive—perhaps you are trying to create an archive of something—then there is no problem. But if you want to monetise your content, we have a problem.
Can you reuse content on YouTube?- YouTube’s Stance on Reused Content
While it’s true that most of YouTube’s policies and service changes stem from a direct or indirect way to increase revenue, it’s not always immediately obvious how a particular change might help with that.
In the case of public domain content, there are no copyright holders to sue anyone, and the content is still subject to the same rules regarding monetisation as everything else, so what could the problem be?
Well, fewer viewers mean less ad revenue, and less appealing content means fewer viewers. If the same content is appearing in several videos across multiple channels, that content is going to lose its value to the viewer. Moreover, it makes YouTube as a hole look less valuable.
If someone is searching for something and comes across the same content several times, they’re less likely to search there in future.
So, when YouTube detects content that already exists on YouTube—even when that content is not copyrighted—it will demonetise it. This isn’t an unofficial rule, they explicitly mention it in their monetisation policy.
Other Public Domain Problems
Though not technically a problem in terms of YouTube policies, there are other issues you might run into when using public domain content in your videos.
Not Really Public Domain
There is nothing to stop someone uploading content to a hosting service and claiming it is public domain. That is, nothing except for the copyright holder. However, if you use said content, you will be responsible for your copyright infringement all the same.
It may not seem fair, that’s the way of the Internet. The only way to definitive prove that a piece of work is public domain is to have it checked out by an expert, which isn’t exactly practical. If you stick to trusted sources, you should be fine. Some random WordPress blog isn’t an ideal source, however.
While we don’t doubt that there are unscrupulous devils out there who are prepared to flag a public domain video for copyright violations that don’t exist, the risk of false flags actually comes from a more innocent—though no less frustrating—place.
YouTube’s Content ID system is a way for eligible YouTube channels to have YouTube automatically flag content that it recognises as someone else’s. This is used by TV studios, record labels, and more. The problem is, sometimes these eligible YouTubers use public domain content themselves, and the Content ID system doesn’t always know that. It just knows that the content they uploaded belongs to them, and you have just uploaded content that contains something identical to their content. The fact that it’s identical because you both got it from the same place doesn’t factor in.
In most cases, this mistake should be solvable with a simple counter-claim. Unless the copyright holder at the other end of the claim is an unsavoury individual with no morals, it should be quickly resolved.
Try to Use Original Content
Regardless of whether you are using public domain footage, Creative Commons, or legally licensed video, it’s a good idea to use original content as much as possible. A good metric to strive for is an 80/20 split, with 80% of the content you create consisting of your own original footage. Of course, that’s not going to be possible in all situations. For example, channels that offer commentary on real events will always have a large portion of their content consisting of footage they don’t technically own. But, if it’s possible, you should certainly strive for as little third party footage as you can get away with.
Why Use Public Domain?
If you’re new to the concept of public domain, and you’re wondering what’s so appealing about it, public domain works are works that are not under any copyright. They could have been intentionally released to the public domain at some stage, or they could have passed into the public domain after their copyright term expired.
These works essentially do not have an owner, so they cannot be “stolen”. Transformative works—that is, new works that use public domain content in a way that significantly changes it from the source material—can be copyrighted, however.
To give you a couple of examples, a content creator who includes a minute of public domain content in their video cannot claim ownership of that minute of video. However, someone could release a public domain video in its entirety with their face in the corner giving commentary, and claim that specific video, even though it contains all of the public domain content.
Anything that is public domain is essentially fair game for anyone to do anything (within the law, of course), but you should ask yourself what you are trying to achieve. Many attempts to make money using public domain content would fall flat for one reason or another, and end up being nothing more than a waste of time.
However, if you are using public domain content as part of a more complex video, you can certainly pull that off.
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.
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.