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Rogue employee holds independent YouTube channel hostage, War Thunder CEO intervenes

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The CEO of Gaijin Entertainment says that a gameplay producer of free-to-play online multiplayer simulation War Thunder used Digital Millennium Copyright Act claims to suspend, and effectively hold hostage, the channel of the most popular Russian-speaking YouTuber covering the wargame last week. The producer has since been relieved of his duties, and the channel returned to its owner.

Reached for comment today, Pavel Kulikov, manager of operations and gameplay producer for War Thunder, said he has been suspended for his actions and regrets what he did.

"It was emotional and unprofessional," Kulikov told Polygon.

Kulikov admits he issued multiple DMCA claims against the YouTube channel of Kirill "alconafter" Fyodorov, whose broadcasts have been viewed more than 35 million times over the past three years. The number of claims automatically triggered Google's video service to take his channel offline, which Fyodorov says reset his viewer count and caused him to lose thousands of subscribers. It also caused him significant loss of income.

Fyodorov says that when he logged into his YouTube account last week he found that it had been suspended. Gaijin's CEO, Anton Yudintsev, confirmed to Polygon that the suspension was the result of multiple spurious DMCA claims made by his employee, the producer Kulikov. Yudintsev said these DMCA claims were completely against company policy.

"At Gaijin, and for me personally, our policy is that we don't make any kind of censorship attempts," Yudintsev told Polygon. He said that their DMCA claims were only used to go after clones of War Thunder, or games and other properties that used his team's video and artwork to misrepresent themselves.

"We allow anyone to criticize the game ... our policy is that we don't make any kind of censorship attempts."

"We allow anyone to review the game, to stream the game or to criticize the game," Yudintsev said. "[Kulikov] issued the copyright strikes even though he has no right to."

Kulikov has since had his access to Gaijin company systems revoked, and a decision on his continued employment is pending the CEO's return from vacation.

Making DMCA claims, Yudintsev said "isn't even a big deal" at Gaijin. "It's just a routine thing we have to do," he said, from time to time to bring down clones. When he found out about Kulikov's actions, he moved as quickly as possible to return Fyodorov's channel to him. He personally called the 23-year old at his home in Latvia and apologized.

The most disturbing part of Kulikov's actions came in the days following the DMCA claims, when Fyodorov tells Polygon Kulikov first offered to partner with the YouTuber and help raise his subscriber count. Later, Fyodorov says Kulikov attempted to get him to sign a bizarre contract which, among other claims, would make him liable for multiple monetary fines if his broadcasts did not meet Gaijin standards.

Yudintsev says that the document was never reviewed by him, nor his legal staff. We've included the full text of the document below as Fyodorov claims it was delivered to him.

I hereby undertake to release at least four video reviews about the game War Thunder per week, and I also guarantee that the content will not contain insults and materials discrediting the reputation of the game War Thunder and that may cause direct or indirect damage to the right holder of the game. ...

If the channel owner breaches the terms and conditions of this agreement Gaijin Network Ltd. may at its sole discretion (a) unilaterally terminate this agreement and/or (d) require the channel owner to pay a fine of $10,000 for each case of breach."

Fyodorov told Polygon that a single payment would have been in excess of his total YouTube income for a calendar year.

When reached by email, producer Kulikov admitted to making the DMCA claims and the bogus contract.

"I took [the] standard YouTube monetization form and added lines about false facts," Kulikov told Polygon. "Once I wrote and sent it, I realized how stupid it [was]."

"He was violating direct orders and policy [of Gaijin] not to make a censorship attempt on the internet," Gaijin's CEO Yudintsev told Polygon. "He has done this on his own, and also on his own he has tried to make a legally binding contract, which itself was poorly made. ... It wasn't even a good contract."

"Obviously he made a very huge mistake," Yudintsev said, "which is damaging our reputation. ... He has personally apologized to [Fyodorov]."

Yudintsev blames himself for the actions of an employee who was ultimately, he said, his responsibility.

"There's not many good people on the market," Yudintsev said. "[Kulikov] understands the game, he loves the game. But of course, he can no longer be the manager of operations. He cannot be producer anymore."

The conflict between the producer and the YouTuber stems from an incident in 2013 where Fyodorov's channel appeared to promote a kind of internet flash-mob, an orchestrated series of interventions by the War Thunder community to disrupt Gaijin social media accounts. Fyodorov denies the allegations. But that personal issue, Yudintsev said, is beside the point. Kulikov's actions were unfair to Fyodorov, and damaging to the company as a whole.

"His personal feelings should never be more important for him than company policy or my personal instructions," Yudintsev said. "That means that he cannot be in a position where his personal feelings can result in any things like that."

"His personal feelings should never be more important for him than company policy."

Whether or not Kulikov will remain employed by the company has yet to be determined, Yudintsev said.

"Maybe he's already looking for another job," he said. "I don't know."

"Three years of free advertising of your game, three years of my working and of my nerves. It's all my life," Fyodorov told Polygon. "I really love my job, and for three years I haven't had even a single day of holiday. Even one day. Even New Years, Christmas, my birthday — every day was a video on my channel and all videos were dedicated to War Thunder."

Fyodorov, himself a former law student, became a full-time YouTuber thanks to his work covering War Thunder. At most, he said, he's made around $1,000 per month. Enough to live, he says, and enjoy his work. Even though the 2013 incident removed all formal support by Gaijin from his channel, he has remained the number one Russian-speaking broadcaster covering the game. He's not sure, he said, if he will continue.

"I lost money," Fyodorov said. "I lost subscribers. I lost views. But, I'm not the kind of person who wants conflict. I want to work. They offered me compensations or something like that ... money, press accounts, [in-game currency] ... But, for a man, it would not be handsome to accept."

War Thunder screenshot 1440

Gaijin's CEO admits he offered Fyodorov compensation, if only out of a sense of compassion.

"I apologized," Yudintsev said, taking time away from a rare family vacation to deal with the issue and to speak with Polygon. "I offered him compensation. His channel was blocked for three days, and he wasn't able to earn money, so he had some financial damage as well. I offered him money not to keep him silent or anything like that, but as compensation for his loss.

"He has not accepted anything like that. He accepted my apologies, but... I feel sorry that I even mentioned that in the interview, but we've done whatever we could. I made an explanation, I made an email to everyone in the company saying the [Kulikov] is not doing his job anymore and saying that it was not a company decision and not company policy or anything like that, but keep doing your job and hope things get better from here."

DMCA claims usually take 14 days to process with YouTube, Yudintsev said. He directed his marketing team to work closely with YouTube to remove the strikes, which was accomplished within two days. As of publication of this article the alconafter channel is available — but with a dramatically reduced viewer count.

Yudintsev's only hope is that the actions of one employee do not permanently harm his company and its more than 140 employees.

When asked about how he would turn around public opinion after Kulikov's actions he said, "I don't know. I don't have any plans."

"We just were making our game, and that is all. Of course our reputation is damaged after this. I have tried to make everything right, but there's not anything more we could do. We could close the business. ... A lot of people would be happy if we did that, but not our players. We have more than a million players in the game. So what we can do is continue developing the game and improving it."