Copyright has always been a confusing and contentious issue on YouTube.
Originally the website capped videos to ten minutes to stop people uploading feature-length films. Now there is content identification and melody matching software, not to mention a sprawling list of YouTube rights management issues to contend with if you want to use or draw inspiration from someone else’s work.
Recording cover versions of songs has always been a hazy area for creators. Just look at the amount of creators who upload an Adele cover and then describe it as “fair use”. That’s no better than shyly whimpering: “Is this okay? I think this is okay. Please don’t hate me!”
There have been cases of YouTube creators having ad-sense money taken from them after having their audio matched. Creators even face copyright strikes on their accounts which can lead to a site-wide ban, which can seem heavy-handed.
The technology behind content-matching has proven to be far from perfect. Birdsong in the background of a video has been incorrectly claimed as breaching copyright. There have also been problems in the past with bogus companies claiming content as their own – including Night of the Living Dead, a film well known to be in the public domain.
There is also the infamous case of the Newport (Ymerodraeth State of Mind) video by M-J Delaney, which was a parody of the Jay Z and Alicia Keys song, Empire State of Mind. The video got taken down in 2010 due to a copyright claim filed by EMI, after it had reached over 2.5 million views.
Technically you break copyright law if you upload a cover of a song to YouTube without the correct licence, no matter how many times you claim “no copyright infringement intended” in the video description. Subsequent action is at the discretion of the record label concerned. Some labels turned popular YouTube covers into free advertising and let them stay online while claiming a portion of advertising revenue. Others were not so lenient and had the videos taken down.
Now all this could change. YouTube has announced that the site will soon allow creators to upload cover versions and split the advertising revenue with Google and the record label.
A spokesperson for YouTube said: “Another cool thing we’re working on is making it even easier to make mash-ups and cover songs… wouldn’t it be awesome if you could actually share in the revenue of those videos? Well for the first time we’re bringing that capability to you.”
In the labyrinth of the Google’s Partner Support pages you can also find clearer instructions as to how to monetise your cover versions in the future.
The website says: “Creators participating in the YouTube Partner Programme can now share in the revenue from eligible cover song videos on YouTube, once those videos are claimed by music publisher owners. You will be paid revenue for these videos on a pro rata basis.”
However, this page makes it clear that not all songs are eligible for shared royalties – but doesn’t give any more information about which copyright owners have agreed to take part. There’s also no information about how royalties will be split between cover artist and copyright owner.
Additionally this feature can only be enabled once the copyright owner has claimed rights on your video. It seems at the moment creators have to upload a video without knowing whether their cover is eligible for split royalties or whether it will be taken down.
Videos containing karaoke music and concert footage are also excluded from this feature – so unfortunately you won’t be getting rich from that footage you recorded when you went to see Beyoncé last year.
This decision to open up the ability for creators to share revenue on their cover songs may mark the beginning of more flexible rights management for individuals. Channels with multiple contributors like Bing’s youtube.com/talk and massive collaborations like Tim H’s Project Library may in the future be able to give those involved a share of the revenue gained from the channels.