Whenever YouTube describes its efforts to fight back against copyright infringement and discourage misuse, it’s always quick to point to its Content ID system.
Content ID is the system, first rolled out in 2008 and extended to music in 2010, through which rightsholders are able to upload their content to a database that YouTube then uses to match against works uploaded to the site by third-party users. When the system detects a match, the rightsholder can then choose what to do with it, including simply tracking the content, monetizing the claim or, if desired, blocking the video outright.
This system is powerful, and has allowed some artists and rightsholders an additional degree of agency. It’s also been the subject of a number of controversies, both among artists and YouTube users, with the latter launching a campaign that forced YouTube to make adjustments to the system.
But despite controversy, Content ID is still a potentially useful tool for any musician or record label. The ability to control and/or monetize music on YouTube is powerful; different artists working in different genres with different business models and varying assumptions about the scale of their audience will find it makes sense to use the tool in different ways. For the lucky artists who rack up huge play counts, monetization could add up to a meaningful revenue stream. Other artists will focus on using Content ID solely to prevent infringing content from appearing on YouTube, encouraging their fans to listen in ways that are more remunerative. Still others may take a case-by-case approach.
However, not every artist has the same range of choices. YouTube doesn’t make it abundantly clear how to join Content ID. Its copyright page, for example, shows how to file a takedown notice and how to dispute a Content ID claim, but doesn’t clearly lay out how a creator can get her work included in the automated detection system.
Fortunately, there is an application process. However, for many artists or small independent labels, direct access to Content ID may still not be made available, depending on their circumstances.
Is your work already in Content ID?
Some musicians may be surprised to find that their work is already included in Content ID. If you release recordings with a label that works with a digital distributor, your recordings may already be in the database. (Sometimes, artists find this out the hard way when they receieve a copyright notice on their own YouTube Channel).
Unfortunately, it may not be easy to obtain the actual terms of the deal governing the use of your work. Such deals are typically covered under non-disclosure agreements, so we’re not even allowed to look at them, but anecdotally their terms seem to vary—with different deals offered to major labels, independents working through the licensing body Merlin, or the many unaffilliated artists out there. This is one area where you should insist on transparency from your commercial partners. It is important to be proactive with your label and/or distributor and make your wishes known about how, when, and whether you’d like third-party uploads of your work to appear on YouTube. You may have more options than they’ve told you about.
Applying for Content ID
To find where to apply for Content ID, you have to dig through YouTube’s help files. Eventually though, you’ll land on this Content Identification Application, which is the first step to joining Content ID.
The form itself is fairly straightforward, asking for contact information, details on the types of and amount of copyrighted content you control and your reasons for wanting to join Content ID.
However, filling out the application is no guarantee that you will be accepted into Content ID. As YouTube says, “Content ID acceptance is based on an evaluation of each applicant’s actual need for the tools. Applicants must be able to provide evidence of the copyrighted content for which they control exclusive rights.”
In short, if YouTube either doesn’t feel the tool is a good fit for you or that you have not provided adequate evidence of exclusive rights, that it will reject your application. It’s a little odd that YouTube thinks it’s in a better position than you to determine whether you “actually need” this tool, and their criteria for evaluation are frustratingly vague. In the context of bigger debates about the widespread problem of infringing content on YouTube, citing Content ID as a comprehensive solution looks dubious when access to those tools aren’t available equally to creators big and small.
As far as we can tell, the application process tends to favor larger rightsholders, those with thousands of individual songs in their catalogs. This makes a certain amount of sense, since rightsholders that are accepted into the program are required to comply with technical actions such as uploading the content, providing the proper metadata for Content ID’s CMS and so forth. And it’s understandable that YouTube would want to be somewhat careful about who they let into the system. Content ID’s effectiveness would certainly be compromised if a flood of people were empowered to use an automated system to claim ownership of stuff that isn’t theirs. (On the other hand, they’ve already got a flood of clueless uploaders writing “I do not own this; no copyright intended!” so there is some asymmetry to consider here.)
Those who don’t “qualify,” for whatever reason, are often sent to alternative services, such as YouTube Content Verification Program, which is aimed at helping copyright holders expedite takedown notices against infringing uploads. But that’s not a satisfactory alternative for artists and rightsholders who see their stuff being used without permission and are frustrated that a takedown of one link doesn’t prevent a new link of the same infringing content to be repopulated by another user.
As a result, many independent rightsholders that are eager to join Content ID end up taking an alternate approach to signing up, one that involves working with a middleman.
YouTube Partner Services
YouTube Partner Services are companies that act as an intermediary, briding the gap between smaller creators and YouTube’s Content ID system. This approach is recommended by ASCAP for performing songwriters who want to participate in Content ID and continue to collect royalties through their PRO.
The idea is straightforward. Partner companies work with a large number of smaller creators and manage their YouTube Content ID for them, handling both technological and legal hurdles. In exchange, they take a percentage of the revenue, usually between 15% and 30%.
Some examples include Audiam, AdRev, Vydia and ONErpm. These services are often paired with other distribution assistance, such as making your music available to streaming music services or digital download storefronts.
However, it’s important to note that, when these services work with Content ID, they tend to focus (almost exclusively) on monetization, not removal. As such, musicians that go through partner services often don’t gain an ability to use Content ID to take down unwanted videos, and, in some cases, may lose a portion of their revenue on their own channels.
So far, the only services that we’ve been able to confirm that allow musicians to take down unauthorized copies if they choose are Audiam, Exploration.io and Believe Digital, and ONErpm, and even with these, you may need to make a special request to be able to block or mute unauthorized uploads.
Failing to give creators the full range of tools is a serious weakness for many partner companies. Still, for independent musicians eager to take advantage of Content ID monetization, a partner service is likely the easiest path. Just read any contracts that are signed very closely and be aware of any rights that you are giving up and for how long you are doing so.
When it comes to Content ID, there is very little that is simple. Everything about the process including signing up, uploading work, making claims and dealing with appeals is, in its own way, complicated. And like too many parts of the music business, it lacks transparency, and seems oriented to deal with the needs of the bigger commercial players.
Yet there is some real potential here if the tools are made available to the full range of creators. Detection technology is still relatively new, and all companies that offer such tools should prioritize inclusivity, transparency, and accessibility, whether it’s Content ID or competing systems like Audible Magic.