How copyright filters lead to wage-theft

A Red Queen’s race with fraudsters.

Cory Doctorow


Joseph Karl Stieler’s iconic 1820 portrait of Beethoven; Beethoven’s mouth has been covered with a ‘sad Youtube’ icon.

Last week, “Marina” — a piano teacher who publishes free lessons her Piano Keys Youtube channel — celebrated her fifth anniversary by announcing that she was quitting Youtube because her meager wages were being stolen by fraudsters.

Marina posted a video with a snatch of her performance of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” published in 1801. The composition is firmly in the public domain, and the copyright in the performance is firmly Marina’s, but it still triggered Youtube’s automated copyright filter.

A corporate entity — identified only by an alphabet soup of initialisms and cryptic LLC names — had claimed Ole Ludwig Van’s masterpiece as their own, identifying it as “Wicca Moonlight.”

Content ID, the automated Youtube filter, flagged Marina’s track as an unauthorized performance of this “Wicca Moonlight” track. Marina appealed the automated judgement, which triggered a message to this shadowy LLC asking if they agreed that no infringement had taken place.

But the LLC renewed its claim of infringement. Marina now faces several unpleasant choices:

  1. She can allow the LLC to monetize her video, stealing the meager wages she receives from the ads that appear on it
  2. She can take down her video
  3. She can provide her full name and address to Youtube in order to escalate the claim, with the possibility that her attackers will get her contact details, and with the risk that if she loses her claim, she can lose her Youtube channel

The incident was a wake-up call for Marina, who is quitting Youtube altogether, noting that it has become a place that favors grifters over creators. She’s not wrong, and it’s worth looking at how that happened.

Content ID was created to mollify the entertainment industry after Google acquired Youtube. Google would spend $100m on filtering tech that would allow rightsholders to go beyond the simple “takedown” permitted by law, and instead share in revenues from creative uses.

But it’s easy to see how this system could be abused. What if people falsely asserted…