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How YouTube Screws Small Creators (slippedisc.com)
Victory Over False Copyright Claim! (The Piano Keys on youtube.com)

I’ve been wanting to do more on my Twitch channel than just play video games for a while now. Some of the streamers I support on there do “chill streams,” where they write or craft or work on other things, while creating a welcoming atmosphere for others to do the same through music and casual conversation. That feels like something more suited to my skills (and desires) than playing video games for others to watch, and so this past Saturday night, as I was drafting one of the posts for my Patreon that just went up (insert plug for my patrons-only updates on there), I decided to do a writing stream. After preparing for it, including making sure that I was playing music that was okay to stream for non-commercial purposes, I managed to get that first “chill” stream done. No one stopped by, but hardly anyone stops by my video game streams anyway, and since streaming is just a hobby of mine, I was okay with that.

Later that night, though, when I went back to look at things on my Twitch channel, I found out that Twitch was muting some of the audio of my writing stream. Even after making sure I was using music that wouldn’t get flagged by the automated systems that search for unauthorized music being played on streams, it turned out that I played a song by Scott Buckley that, although he’d licensed it for non-commercial use through Creative Commons, was accidentally put into those automated systems by another company he was doing business with. (Buckley blogged about this problem recently.) Rather than risk getting into a protracted dispute over the stream, I wound up deleting it, and while the world is hardly a lesser place for that recording being erased, having to go through that experience has still really put another weight on my shoulders.

Musicians had far too much to deal with before the pandemic — the whole “art isn’t real work” nonsense, absurdly low royalty payments from some streaming services, the continuing legacy of online music piracy — but because COVID-19 precautions basically cut off the possibility of live music performances for so many artists (which is how many of them make enough money to support themselves), the past fifteen months have been nothing short of brutal for many in the live music communities around the world. This is why I’ve taken such pains to make sure that when I link to music online, I do so in a way that will put some money in the musicians’ pockets, and why I always use music licensed for non-commercial rebroadcast on my Twitch channel. As a published artist myself, I don’t want people throwing my paid work around for free, and I owe it to other artists to promote responsible enjoyment of artistic work in everything I do, whether I’m sending it out to the world or just listening to music by myself here in my bedroom.

The fact that someone on YouTube could get dragged into a protracted struggle over their performance of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” kind of sickens me. There was a time when I could say that the “Moonlight Sonata” is so well-known from film and television that even laypeople should be expected to know that the work has been long out of copyright, but with the increasing use of contemporary music in mass media these days, maybe that’s not the case any longer. Still, if a company worth $1.62 trillion (as of this morning) is going to handle the legal issues surrounding playing of music on their properties, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect that if the people who do that work are told by someone that they have the legal rights to a piece of music written by someone who’s been dead for nearly two hundred years, that someone should be dismissed with the most derisive of laughter.

While the YouTube creators in question did eventually get the resolution they needed, the fact that this episode blew up as much as it did just shows how much power that the large corporations who run Internet services can have over the literal livelihoods of the people who rely on those services for significant chunks of their outcome, especially when other large entities try to game the system through litigating individuals until those individuals can’t afford to litigate any longer. In a lot of ways, this highlights the same problems caused by advocates of “tort reform” who try to make billion-dollar companies into victims when they get sued by victims of faulty products and services. Although YouTube did sanction the company that tried to claim one of its artists owned Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which another Internet service company decides to “let the courts settle things,” and one of these companies trying to claim ownership of public domain materials winds up successfully wiping a content creator, whether a musician or a video essayist or what have you, out of the public sphere.

As I said before, streaming is just a hobby for me, and I’d be genuinely surprised if I ever make one cent from it. If I were to get kicked off Twitch, though, I would be worried because I do provide support to other content creators through Twitch’s platform, and not being able to do that any longer would make it more difficult for me to support those people’s work. More and more people are using these platforms to generate the money they need to pay their bills, or at least a significant portion of them, and if a company is going to enable individuals to make money using their services (which they will certainly keep doing, since taking a piece of that revenue is how they make all their money), then they owe it to those customers to have a robust arbitration system set up, with enough actual human beings (not easily-manipulated computer algorithms) at its heart to handle the services’ volume, to make sure that individual creators can’t be bullied out of their efforts by corporate entities big enough to keep throwing lawyers at a problem until they get what they want. In the “Moonlight Sonata” incident, YouTube admitted that their safeguards malfunctioned, but I know content creators who have been thrown off of platforms because the providers of those platforms didn’t even give them a chance to dispute charges made against them, and with more people relying on these platforms to keep roofs over their heads, having the capacity to fairly and effectively resolve these disputes can literally be a matter of life and death for some users.

This doesn’t even get into the larger problems of how laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act don’t do nearly enough to disincentive the rich and powerful from harassing and bullying independent content creators through endless litigation. Holders of copyrights deserve to have their legal rights protected, and I wouldn’t dare claim to be an expert on the limits of Fair Use in derivative works, but if the ownership of something like one of Beethoven’s most famous piano sonatas can provoke a struggle large enough to make it to the front page of one of the Internet’s biggest websites, then that should be a clear sign that more needs to be done to protect individual people from the excesses of corporations that use their power to try to stop the powerless from practicing things that they are legally entitled to do.

I may try to do another writing stream in the future, but even though I’ve hardly suffered as a result of what happened after my first stream, given what has happened to others out there, I can’t help but worry that my next attempt to do that kind of a stream will result in far worse consequences. My example shows how these overly litigious corporations have already succeeded in creating an atmosphere where small content creators like me, even when they are within their legal rights to do what they do online, are fearful of what may happen if one small piece of a computer algorithm somewhere goes wrong. That kind of atmosphere is going to kill the very heart of what makes services like Twitch and YouTube so powerful and relevant to today’s sociopolitical climate, and soon those services may end up, just like older forms of media, the exclusive domain of large corporations who can afford protracted legal showdowns with other large corporations. If independent artists can’t be assured of at least a modicum of protection from ill-intentioned corporations, then all their art is going to disappear from the Internet a lot sooner than most people realize, and we’ll all be much poorer for it.

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