The more you dig into this story of a YouTube copyright feeding frenzy against makers of Let's Play videos, the more you seem to find villains.
Of course, everybody involved is pointing at someone else, claiming innocence for themselves or, at least, noble intentions. The makers of the videos are being portrayed as irresponsible mavericks, ignorant of copyright laws, grasping revenues off the back of other people's work. The big games companies are being demonized as clunking robots, operated by callous lawyers, hell bent on stifling creativity. YouTube is a misguided machine, adrift from the needs of its human channel operators.
But no-one is receiving as much grief as the music companies that are behind many of these claims, which divert advertising revenues from the video makers, to the claimed rights holders. Companies like Indmusic and TuneCore, which are using YouTube's mechanistic copyright sentry Content ID to flag snips of music used in games, and grabbing revenues.
Even game developers, like Terry Cavanagh, Rami Ismail of Vlambeer and Mike Bithell have received flags on videos of their own games, for alleged breaches of copyright against the makers of the soundtracks.
Polygon spoke to Indmusic CEO Brandon Martinez. His view is that the whole copyright sweep is "a miscommunication," that could have been avoided if music composers who had sold the rights of their games to games companies had been more careful.
Here's how it works. You are a musician who writes and records an album called "Nice Tinkly Tunes." You sign up with TuneCore to distribute your music on various digital channels like iTunes and Spotify. You also ask TuneCore to track usage of "Nice Tinkly Tunes," so if it ends up in a commercial for Coca Cola, you are fairly rewarded.
You also sell "Nice Tinkly Tunes" to an indie developer who uses it as a soundtrack for a platformer, that winds up being a big hit. The platformer (and your music) is featured in trailers, Let's Plays and Walkthroughs.
Meanwhile, TuneCore signs a deal with Indmusic, which operates a music channel on YouTube and specializes in chasing down copyright violations for its signed artists on YouTube. TuneCore updates its terms of service, so that its remit to protect your music now includes YouTube.
At the same time, YouTube decides it's high time that video game videos are scoured and searched for copyright violations. Indmusic has put "Nice Tinkly Tunes" into YouTube's copyright database called Content ID. So all those Let's Plays and trailers are suddenly flagging violations.
According to Martinez, you are at fault for failing to notify TuneCore or Indmusic that you were ok with the music being used in videos, when it is associated with the platform game. When you did the deal with the indie game company, you probably signed a deal that said it was fine for the music to be used in trailers and Let's Plays. But Content ID doesn't know this, and neither does Indmusic.
"There's a lack of communication, on behalf of the composers letting us know that, hey, I've been commissioned to write this music for X game, or I've provided a license to this specific YouTuber or video game content creator, whatever it is, that just wasn't passed along," said Martinez. "If it wasn't shared with the actual publisher [TuneCore], it wasn't shared with us. When all this content was uploaded to YouTube, we had no idea that this was going to be such an issue."
Indmusic has been the subject of much internet scorn, which Martinez said is undeserved. He said the company has been knee-deep in sorting out these issues. "People are still retweeting comments from a lot of artists that we've already cleared up a lot of the issues with, even a lot of content creators. We've been very active in responding," he said. "We were here late last night to make sure that anybody who contacted us got a response yesterday. We want to make sure that these issues are resolved."
Some musicians, while accepting the outline of Martinez's argument, take a different view. BitBurner is a composer well known in the Minecraft community, He has created a Reddit page dedicated to unearthing some of the issues surrounding this debacle.
He signed with TuneCore in order to have his music distributed, and because he liked the company's copyright tracking services, which allow him to choose whether to follow-up on any use of his material. He told Polygon that the decision to scour YouTube and send out violations was inserted into a ToS update, one with which he would not have agreed.
"They changed the ToS," he said. "They put it in there, without telling anyone who had already been part of this publishing thing, and turned it on opt-in, and have gone totally aggressive on the way they're taking these."
He said that some artists had been hit with copyright claims against their own videos. Meanwhile, YouTube's advice to video-makers is to be careful when using music. "If you look at their statement on it, they're washing their hands of the whole thing," he said. "They're saying, well, don't put music in your videos. They're standing back and letting all hell break loose. YouTube wants everybody to see that it's not them. It's everyone else."
One instructive example is the story of "Harlem Shake." Indmusic owns the copyrights to the music used in the video meme, in which people dance to a funky tune. The company chased own video makers who were making money from the song. "They were using the actual song without permission," said Martinez. "So we say, look, we're not going to sue you. We're not going to take your video down. We're simply going to make sure that if there is revenue being made, we're going to take the portion that YouTube has agreed should go to the audio rights holder and we're going to pay that out to the artist."
Indmusic and TuneCore take 20% of revenues that accrue from music rights, he said, with 80 percent going to the musician. BitBurner argued that "Harlem Shake" is an example of greedy rights owners harming creativity. Many of the videos using the music were taken down by their makers, and so created no benefit for the composer.
"The attorneys show up and they take everything," he said. "They don't care if these videos are great for promotion." He said that the system is rife with abuse, attracting unscrupulous companies that are seeking to create revenue streams on the back of bogus claims.
Martinez claimed that accusations that Indmusic has made a killing from copyright claims are untrue. "If the content creator sourced a dispute on that, which they obviously have, that money goes into limbo," he said. "There's revenue that's being made, but no one is collecting on it until that dispute has been resolved.
"That's a big thing that a lot of people have been getting up in arms about, and it's just not true. It's not like suddenly someone from YouTube showed up with a bunch of video game money and said, 'here you go.' That just didn't happen. Until we resolve those issues, the money is just sitting there waiting for someone to figure it out. If these claims all get resolved, everyone gets paid the same as they were before."
Still, this assumes that the claims will be disputed. In the meantime, Martinez is urging anyone whose video has been flagged by Indmusic to get in touch, and asking composers who have sold music to games companies to "whitelist" their tunes.
You can read more on this story in Polygon's Storystream.