Outrage and confusion have descended on the world of Let's Plays and YouTube video game content this week, following a flurry of copyright claims that have left some of the Internet's biggest star presenters bewildered.
Even the biggest producers, some of whom have millions of subscribers and who belong to large networks like Machinima, have been hit with a blitz of claims, diverting revenues from their work to copyright claimants. The issue is confused by complex laws and procedures and by the opacity of YouTube's activities.
If you go onto YouTube and look for a favorite game, you will find previews and trailers from the game's producers. You may find reviews from media outlets like Polygon. You will also find extensive collections of walkthroughs and Let's Plays, which are videos of people playing the game and talking about it.
These videos are problematic from a copyright perspective. The visuals and soundtracks usually belong to the game's publisher, or to any number of third party licensors, especially if they feature music.
YouTube allows copyright owners to automatically search any videos that make use of content that they own, which they can then flag. Using a service from YouTube called Content ID, they can block the content, they can monitor its traffic or they can claim revenues from any advertising attached to the videos, without any need to call on lawyers.
The most successful Let's Play producers are well-known personalities in their own right, who can earn tens of thousands of dollars a month from advertising through the millions of views they notch up every month. They acknowledge that their work is reliant on games content that they have not produced, but they say their work is fair use of the assets and helps to sell the content.
Most games companies have a stated policy of allowing Let's Plays so long as they are not monetized. But, until now, they rarely bother to make claims on the videos. Earlier this year, Nintendo said it would seek to monetize such videos, but YouTube video producers tell Polygon that Nintendo has not done much to follow up on its plans.
The producers wield power in the domain of public opinion. One games company was forced to apologize earlier this year when it slapped a copyright notice on popular YouTube critic TotalBiscuit, who had made negative comments about its product.
According to forum posts on NeoGAF, it has been well known for some time that YouTube would be tightening its rules to block the most egregious videos from individuals who post copyrighted material wholesale without any original commentary. But this week, producers with established audiences and even relationships with the games companies, have received hundreds of notices that their content is in violation of copyrights. Some report that up to 15 percent of their content is now diverting ad revenues to third parties, some of which have no obvious connection to the games.
"It has been rumored that YouTube will be changing their policy for awhile, ever since music companies started to sue YouTube and networks for allowing monetization of cover songs," said Doug Le, aka NukemDukem, a video content creator. "We got e-mails saying this was suppose to take place in early 2014 with the new video monetization review. It is to cover YouTube's behind from more lawsuits."
"A floodgate has opened and we have gone from getting maybe one [copyright notice] every few weeks to getting hundreds in one day," said Zach Drapala, aka GhostRobo, who operates a Machinima channel with over 600,000 subscribers. "It's crazy. Nothing like this has happened before."
He said that "half of the claims" are coming from companies that have no clear connection with the games, and that others are coming from game companies that are normally supportive of video producers.
"It's like YouTube just vomited out all these claims," Drapala told Polygon. "It's not from some legitimate games companies. I don't see how they are even associated with the games they are making claims on." He said that one claim had come from a company stating that it owns the copyright to a song played, in-game, on a radio station.
But many claims are from games companies like Nintendo. Drapala said that despite running Nintendo videos for months without any problems, he has been hit with multiple notices this week on videos related to the company's games, often referencing use of music.
Producers are speculating that YouTube has been overzealous in its implementation of new rules, and that some companies are seeking to take advantage of tenuous copyright connections. "I think it's a combination of all those things," said Drapala. "I think YouTube wants to crack down on people who just upload whole movies but there are clearly far too many holes in the system."
Certainly, some games companies are angry about the situation. Capcom tweeted today that it would be "investigating flags not instigated by us." A spokesperson for Deep Silver told Polygon that the company had nothing to do with flags that had been sent out based on its games. "We definitely don't want YouTubers to have to deal with this," she said. "We aren't sure really where these claims are coming from but we never want to block YouTubers from having fun with any of our games. We've already been looking into what we can do for the past day since this first went down and we'll be getting together tomorrow first thing in the morning to try and unravel it some more to find ways to help."
Polygon has contacted YouTube seeking comment, but has so far received no reply.
Machinima, which operates a large number of producer affiliates, tweeted today via network manager OpTicJ that it is "researching why it's happening" adding that "there's been some irregular influx as of today." Polygon contacted the company for more information, but a spokesperson declined to comment.
We've also contacted Nintendo, some other game companies and a selection of video producers and will be following up this story in the days ahead.