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Youtube Music - Copyright information

Updated on February 28, 2014
Youtube are strict about copyright violation
Youtube are strict about copyright violation

What are the issues?

Youtube are rightly strict with music licensing & copyright.

Why do I say rightly? Well - the music is, after all, the work of an artist who really should be paid for the use of his / her / their music. Most of the time the copyright holder will actually be a large record label, and each sale (or sale of license) earns the original artist a small payment from the royalty. Of course - you hear commercial pop & rock music all the time on TV & Radio adverts, and this has always been properly licensed, and in some cases that is not cheap, but for any TV or radio advert, promo or programme to be cleared for air the production company must have agreed terms or there will be legal issues.

Anyone online can broadcast & publish

With Youtube anyone with an internet connection can create broadcast content and post it - effectively broadcasting it, but they still need permission from the copyright holder to use any music or indeed video in their own clip. While the person uploading may not be benefiting financially from the music track, the fact that it is "published" by them means that in effect they are using the music without license payment. Just because you're 'only uploading it to YouTube' does not mean you're not publishing it - if you create a webpage or upload an image, music, video and it is live on the web for (most of) the entire web-connected world to see (aka lots and lots of people), it is most definitely published!

The trouble is - this is the internet and although restrictions are becoming tighter, it's still a bit like the wild-west out there at times in terms of safeguards & regulation.

What happens if you upload a clip with a commercial track on it?

Nothing bad will happen to you - certainly no lawsuit will take place, in fact all that happens is that you will have adverts appear on your video - the revenue which they generate goes to the actual legal copyright owner, so it's a kind of win-win situation. With Youtube advertising banners the copyright holder gets to choose the type and placement of an ad (to a degree) not the person who's clip it is. Still fair though - after all, they're letting you continue to use, in fact, publish their music for free, but it can be annoying if you only have a 1 minute clip and it's preceded by a 30 second advert for something else entirely - especially not good if that 1 minute clip is a demonstration of a product you are try to sell or a promotional video itself.

Your options for copyrighted music on Youtube

We have already touched on one of the options available when using copyrighted music - let the copyright owner advertise on your videos and they take the advertising revenue and its associated drawbacks.

If that's not really acceptable or doesn't fit with your clip or in your channel you have the option of obtaining a license, and these vary wildly in price, but even when you do obtain a license it's still not straight forward to keep the music on your clip without the copyright holder's advertising. What happens when Youtube identifies the music is that they put the ads on by default and you will receive a message about it - this is where you can notify them of the agreement, and it's not just a simple tick-box (that's for a different article).

You can also edit the clip to try to make it trickier for the website to identify the music. The most obvious and common way is to try and distance it from the original as much as possible. Obviously you don't want to change the music, so you can only make sure things like names, descriptions, filenames, and most important - the actual official movie clip itself are changed and no mention of them made anywhere. This is certainly not a guaranteed method and is hit-and-miss as to which clips it works on and how long it lasts for, but it's worth a go as I've had it work on more than one occasion, when it gets found you're back at the point of copyright holder have advertising space on your clip.

Let's take a different approach to music on Youtube

I'd like you to just take a step back and have a think about what we've discussed so far.

  • The reason a license & copyright exists in the first place.
  • How TV / Radio broadcasters & advertisers do it.
  • Why it can't be done by just anyone with Youtube channel.

Also, let's not forget the basic facts & legal stance:

  • You can't use copyrighted music without some remuneration of sorts (advertising).
  • If you are cunning and can hide it, expect it to revert to normal (advertising) mode when found - so it's not a permanent solution at all.
  • It can be a bit of a struggle to get Youtube approval even if you do purchase a license.
  • No other excuse or reason is allowed - none of this "for charity" "for education" "for demonstration" despite what the website maintains - it's not that easy.

There has to be a happy solution to Youtube copyright surely?!
There has to be a happy solution to Youtube copyright surely?!

Be creative and find your own solution

You may wonder at this stage what other options you have. Well the simple answer is create or use original music in the first place. It may sound a strange concept - especially if you're not a songwriter or musician, but you really don't have to be in this day and age!There are hundreds of ways of creating music at the touch of a button - hardware & software of all shapes, sizes & ease of use.

Another thing to seriously consider is using royalty-free music. There are literally millions of songs available that are completely free to use, some even commercially, and if you can't find exactly what you're looking for then can join music production forums and find other people who are more than willing to help you tweak or edit small bits.
Not using the latest famous song?

Yes - that's right! I can tell you for fact that the majority of TV adverts & programmes do not use huge hits in their music. Those that do have a specific contract with the publishing company - eg. music on a soap opera playing in a pub scene, or a new big brand big budget advert for the latest luxury car. By and large most of broadcast uses music that sounds like other songs - 'soundalikes'. You probably haven't noticed it as much because the visual content is sufficiently distracting enough for you to just hear the elements about the music that suggest the commercial track.

Most of that music is library music - paid for by music and licensed, but at a fraction of the cost. Then there is complete free library music which we've just looked at.
Creating your own music for Youtube Videos

If we're going to mess around with library music - why not go that one extra step and produce something of our own? There are tonnes of programmes out there for this - far too many to mention, but it's a good idea to stick to something really basic as we don't want to be spending our time crafting out the next big hit ourselves (although that would be pretty cool too!)

So - let's go for the first things first. What catches your attention in music most? Probably the drum beat as it's the core rhythm of the song, and bassline which is the solid foundation. The next obvious thing is melody. Copyright is a strange beast in this area so melodies can't be exactly the same as the commercial one, but drum beats and basslines are in a much grayer area. I find matching a beat & a bass is very often all that's needed and is enough to suggest the song. I'll listen to the track, fire up a simple beat editor like btvsolo and throw together a matching beat inside a couple of minutes. Add on a bassline & similar (not exact though) melody with either Propellerhead Reason or still in BTV Solo and pretty much good to go. The result is always good, and sometimes actually a cracking tune on its own!
A fair trade or a 'original music'

Here we've seen just one of the many ways of working together with copyright and within copyright law but still achieve the aim (most of the time) of having decent music which conveys the right emotion for your clip. Step back and think about why you are putting a certain bit of music on a certain clip and ask yourself if it absolutely has to be the famous one or can you write your own easily enough?

Obviously if it has to be a specific track for sentimental reasons there's not much that can be done about it, except to try and find a decent cover version of it that you can try the "hiding it" method with.

Do you really need the actual song?
Do you really need the actual song?

A live example & demonstration

I'm going to leave you with an example of a video a colleague of mine made. He's a Uk musician / producer (I think he likes to think he's bigger than he is though!) who did a remix of a commercial track and laid it back over the original video.

Youtube more-or-less immediately identified the video from a clip a few mins in, but also from the very first significant vocal part (play it and you will hear what I mean). The only part (I say only very lightly as we both have different views about 'remixes') of the original track used was just the vocal line, none of the music itself which is entirely his production.

When you play it, you will notice the little Adsense advert appear at the bottom of the video. It wasn't really an issue as it doesn't interrupt the actual content but you can see how a block like that over your own promotional clip could be a problem.

Update - May 2013

Shortly after I published this article I was talking to my colleague who produces the remixes and told him about it. For some reason he seemed delighted that I'd used his example and went away with an idea - could he produce a similar remix, with original music video and upload it to Youtube without getting a copyright notice or advertising on the video.

Just the other day he called to tell me he's done just that! Now as much as I like to think he talks nonsense a lot of the time, he sent me the link to prove it. So here it is - another remix of a commercial track with the original music video uploaded to Youtube, and sure enough - there's no advertising!

Disclosure ft Eliza Doolittle - You & Me Remix

What is the difference then?

This is something neither of us can really understand apart from the obvious: Vocals are no longer the exact vocals, in fact the entire music is different, although it was in the Fort Minor video (but with original vocals). The only other change that he made was that he had to slightly edit the video and play a couple of scenes twice in order to fit it to the music which was a different length.

This has now really piqued my interest and will be dedicating some time this month to finding out if it's just luck / fluke, or if indeed there is a definite method to circumnavigating Youtube's copyright detection system. It could be that those extra few inserted scenes have made all the difference.

There is, of course, one thing which I noticed that he hadn't - the original music video on their official Youtube channel doesn't have any Adsense advertising associated with it, so it could be that the absence of this means no adverts are displayed. It makes sense when you think about it, as there's no partner to receive the ad revenue generated by the 10,000+ views it's already had.

My next article will reveal my findings (with the help of my DJ friend) and hopefully explain the steps required in order to get this result, and I'll give you a step-by-step guide on how to make these videos from scratch. I definitely encourage you to make your own experiments too, but please bear in mind that his music is drastically different from the original artist's and isn't really taking credit where it's not due!

Until then - happy Youtubing!

Update Oct 2013:

Since publishing this article Youtube have clearly identified this as a copyright infringement and are delivering adverts on top. This is an interesting point since the particular vocal phrase I used is an insignificant part, no 'catch-line' and no distinctive melody lines - in fact the entire song is more-or-less my own and has no resemblance to the original song.

If this were a disputed claim of copyright for a commercial release I would be confident that most music copyright lawyers would have a difficult time convincing any judge that this is indeed an infringement - copyright & music is an extremely grey area. I guess the demonstration succeeded only for a short time, but does give a tiny glimpse into the world of music copyright. In this case Youtube have erred on the side of caution and put adverts on the video anyway - there's certainly no way I'm going to spend a fortune contesting it (especially since I've made it clear that's it's a re-work or "remix").


Update - Feb 28 2014:

A law professor at Harvard Law School who is co-founder of Creative Commons and supporter of copyright reform has won damages for having a video taken down from Youtube from Australian record label 'Liberation'.

Professor Lawrence Lessig was clearly not amused when YouTube blocked a video he uploaded and the record label issued a DMCA takedown notice.

Click here for full article at Torrentfreak

Your thoughts!

Given that copyright is there, amoung other things, to protect the artist - What do you think of Youtube's approach do the public uploading copyrighted material?

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