Wednesday, October 04, 2023

The Artist Uprising ✊: The Small Copyright-Holders Strike Back

Stuart K. Hayashi

It seems that perpetually-online people, especially those who upload onto YouTube and TikTok, are finally beginning to understand the importance of intellectual property rights and of how they benefit the little guy. That is a tremendous sea change — very far off from where perpetually-online people were a decade or two before.

1999 was the year of the war over Napster. Napster made its owner and one of its early executives, respectively, into a multimillionaire and billionaire. But Napster successfully convinced the public that it was the underdog. Users who downloaded music without compensating the musicians rationalized to themselves that they were scrappy rebels sticking it to the record companies and only the greediest of the bands, such as Metallica.

Then came the YouTube era. One of its earliest celebrities was Doug Walker, better known as the Nostalgia Critic. YouTube Corporate was still getting accustomed from 2006 to 2008 to learning how to stop users from violating the intellectual property rights of companies like Disney and Viacom. For that reason, YouTube Corporate often acted with too heavy a hand in taking down contents that could potentially cause problems.

That led to YouTube Corporate removing the five-second clips of major motion pictures that Mr. Walker had uploaded. Even as YouTube Corporate learned not to be so heavy-handed anymore, Walker never forgot and never forgave. For that reason, he took great interest in 2010 when Congress introduced a bill known as the Stop Online Piracy Act — SOPA. The bill was very far from perfect. But, as Chris Ruen notes in his book Free Loading, it would not have allowed for the governmental actions that its detractors would go on to accuse it of trying to implement.

Sadly, Jimmy Wales — cofounder of Wikipedia — wound sow much misunderstanding by stating publicly and inaccurately that the bill’s passage would make it easy for any vexatious corporation to invoke SOPA to shut down his website. Doug Walker, still smarting from the takedowns of his videos from years earlier, and not being someone with a sophisticated understanding of public policy, immediately bought into all of the scare stories. He used his YouTube channel and official website — Channel Awesome —to campaign against SOPA. He took the talking points from Jimmy Wales’s movement and amplified them.

Probably much more than Mr. Wales, Doug Walker did a lot to influence the opinions of YouTube’s vloggers. And from much of this, they drew the wrong lessons not merely about a specific bill like SOPA, but about intellectual property rights more broadly. To a large extent, they fostered the impression that copyrights exist mostly so that big corporations like Disney and Viacom can bully little guys like Doug Walker. 

They also liked to cite the incident between video-game streamer “PewDiePie” and online model “Alinity.” PewDiePie uploaded a video showing clips of her so that he could disparage her and other online models as “THOTs.” Alinity saw this and, on one of her own streams, said this made her want to “copy-strike” the man in retaliation. He had, after all, used her intellectual property without her permission. The majority opinion of the users of YouTube was staunchly on the side of PewDiePie. His fans greatly outnumbered hers. They felt aggrieved not merely by Alinity, but that there existed a type of law that could be invoked against their favorite celebrity. Hence, this dispute was repeatedly brought up in insinuations that copyright enforcement is only a method of retribution against one’s critics.

All of this was very convenient for libertarians as, from the 1970s onward, the party line has been to denigrate the need for intellectual property rights. The Mises Institute and Liberty International (formerly the International Society for Individual Liberty) take the hardline route — they demand the abolition of all patents and copyrights. (They conveniently seldom mention trademarks, and they seem not to know about a type of intellectual property right that farmers have for new sexually-bred crops — planet variety protections.)

Other libertarian think tanks, though, take a more discreet approach. They do not say outright that they want a ban of IPRs. They do, however, wait for high-profile court cases where a precedent may be set, such as with the lawsuits over Napster. And, any time there is a chance that the high-profile issue may result in a weakening in the ability to enforce intellectual property rights, these libertarians will produce op-eds and other essays where they write glowingly of such a weakening.

Fortunately, after the Napster wars and Doug Walker’s campaigns, it seems that uploaders on YouTube and TikTok are finally learning the truth. This is due to a phenomenon that these uploaders call “content theft.”

An important aspect of intellectual property rights is the Fair Use doctrine. It allows one copyright holder to take small parts of another copyright holder’s material in order to comment on it. It is the reason why I can quote other authors and explain the areas where I agree or disagree with them. In this commentary, I am taking a snippet of material that is already copyrighted, but doing so in a context removed from the one in which the material first appeared. Hence, my conservatively-limited reproductions of some copyrighted material is “transformative” of that material. When it comes to online videos, Video-Maker 2 may reproduce a small portion of a video from Video-Maker 1 in order to provide the context in which Video-Maker 2 comments on the work of Video-Maker 1.

Over the past three years, some YouTube uploaders have gained large audiences through abusing and stretching the criteria of “fair use” beyond what it was intended for. They have done so by using sections of other person’s videos that are increasingly large, proportion-wise.

The YouTube uploader SSSniperWolf does “reaction” videos where she watches other people’s TikTok videos, sometimes in their entirety without even showing the TikTok username of the person whose clip she is using. The “commentary” consists of nothing more than her reading the caption out loud and orating for the audience everything that happens onscreen. This has contributed to her gaining over 34 million subscribers on YouTube.

On Twitch, Hasan Piker (nephew to The Young Turks founder Cenk Uygar) and “xQC” will run someone else’s video in its entirety on their own stream as they themselves get up and leave the room. This is routinely done without the permission of the video’s actual owner. All the revenue for this goes to SSSniperWolf, xQc, and Hasan — not the persons whose videos they are using. These practices have played a part in making SSSniperWolf and xQc into multimillionaires. It has also done much to enrich Hasan Piker even further, though he was already born into a multimillionaire family. Someone else who had already been rich and who is now doing this, is the former recording artist Jason Derulo, who had a role in the motion picture adaptation of Cats.

The power imbalance in this situation has greatly undermined the Doug Walker-era myth that online copyright protection is just about rich people trampling on poorer people. It is SSSniperWolf, xQc, and Hasan Piker who have the money and power, and who have been violating the intellectual property rights of people who do not have the wealth, influence, or connections that they do.

The foil to content theft is Jack Douglass. He has been on YouTube from its beginning with his channel “JacksFilms.” Much to his credit, he has created a video to articulate how damaging SSSniperWolf’s practices are to the actual creators of the TikTok videos she uses.

Weeks later, Jack did a follow-up video to elucidate on how the situation with SSSniperWolf was even worse than he realized. There have been occasions where, completely unauthorized, SSSniperWolf has used someone’s TikTok video in its entirety and did not bother saying anything about it. There is not even a pretense of “transformative commentary.” As Jack says, “That’s not ‘fair use’; it’s just ‘use.’ ”

And the best news is that Jack’s efforts have not been in vain. Despite having much fewer subscribers and much less clout, an increasing number of people who have had their videos stolen by SSSniperWolf have been successful in invoking their copyrights. By making their copyright claims to YouTube Corporate, they have been able to pressure SSSniperWolf into removing a growing number of TikTok videos that her YouTube channel has appropriated. This is the first video that Jack has made about the recent string of victories.

As I type this out, here is Jack’s most recent summary of the situation. He ends on a hopeful note by talking about how small copyright-holders are showing that they have indeed been able to defend their work from SSSniperWolf.


I, too, am hopeful. We are coming to see the extinguishment of the narrative that copyrights are all about big media conglomerates slapping around little guys like Nostalgia Critic. Increasingly, small content-creators, who otherwise might have been taken in by Nostalgia Critic’s narrative, are waking up to the reality of the situation. They are seeing how intellectual property rights protect little guys like themselves.

The next time a relatively popular YouTube channel uploads a video sympathetic to JacksFilms, and I have an opportunity to post an early comment, I should write, “All this content theft goes that that cliché so popular in Silicon Valley, ‘Good artists copy; great artists steal,’ needs to go extinct.”