YouTube Content ID

YouTube Content ID isn’t perfect, but it’s something.

When Google recently announced a change to its search rankings algorithm--lowering results for known pirate sites–critics asked why the company would not do the same for YouTube , despite the site’s popularity as a repository for pirated films and music.

Such criticism seems justified.  After all, Google-owned YouTube, like the pirate sites being penalized, receives thousands of DMCA notices each day.  If they’re serious about re-ranking pirate site search results, how can Google justify YouTube’s exclusion from this self-imposed pirate penalty?

As I see it, there’s really only one way that Google/YouTube can justify this apparent contradiction.  Unlike the penalized pirate sites, YouTube distinguishes itself  in one significant way—by offering rights holders access to a “Content ID” system.  Imperfect though it may be,  YouTube Content ID technology is a feature that all indie musicians and filmmakers should understand and utilize.

Here’s YouTube’s short video that explains how Content ID works:

As YouTube explains it:

Rights holders deliver YouTube reference files (audio-only or video) of content they own, metadata describing that content, and policies on what they want YouTube to do when we find a match. We compare videos uploaded to YouTube against those reference files.Our technology automatically identifies your content and applies your preferred policy: monetize, track, or block.

According to Youtube, here are reasons you should use Content ID:

  • Make Money. Hundreds of media companies have signed up already, multiplying their inventory of monetizeable videos.
  • Fan Interaction. Turn your fans into marketers and distributors of your content—while letting them interact with their favorite content.
  • Reduce Infringement. Educate your fans about your copyright preferences and prevent your content from being distributed on YouTube without your permission.
  • Fully Automated. Once you’re set up, Content ID will identify, claim, and apply policies to YouTube videos for you.
  • Market Data. Access snapshots of your content profile on YouTube, anytime. See how your videos are performing, monetizing, being blocked—at a glance.

Sounds too good to be true right?  Well, kinda….but, despite overblown claims and systemic weaknesses, it’s better than the alternative (rampant piracy). With a Content ID account, you’ll gain some control over your content that’s uploaded to YouTube and can determine its fate. Based on what rights you hold, you can remove it, monetize it (share ad revenue with YouTube) or block it (worldwide or by territory) via a fairly straightforward dashboard-a welcome alternative to wasting precious time sending YouTube multiple DMCA notices.  As with DMCA takedowns, uploaders retain the right to dispute  a file’s removal via a counter-notice, but if you have removed legitimately infringing content, this is usually moot.

You can apply for a Content ID account here.  Once you’ve been approved, you all have access to a “Content Management” dashboard that looks like this:

YouTube Content ID dashboard

The process is actually relatively straightforward.  In order to “deliver” content to YouTube, technically all you really have to do is “claim it” when you upload it. Even if you don’t plan to post a public file on YouTube, you can upload a copy of your song or film just as a reference copy for the Content ID system to use as a “fingerprint.”  Below is an example of what the claiming options look like when you upload a file (and have an approved Content ID account).

YouTube Content ID claim page

If the file is for reference purposes only, make sure to make it “private” so that it won’t be accessible to the public.  Once you have a copy  of your work (video or audio) uploaded and claimed, you can use the search option, and search for your work by title or other associated key words that uploaders might use. For demonstration purposes, I searched using the term “Hunger Games Full Movie” by date to demonstrate what results could look like.

Note the search results showed dozens of pirate links uploaded within the last hour, something not uncommon for large Hollywood features.  Most of these files are uploads made by pirates seeking to publicize (illegal) download links on other, non-YouTube sites.  For pirates, uploading these bogus files is a free and easy way to advertise and direct users to their pirates websites.  Unfortunately, while it appears that thousands of these are pirate clips are uploaded daily, The YouTube  Content ID program  can’t detect them, so you’ll have to use search to find.  In the example below, you can see how using a keyword  search can detect these infringing uploads.

Example of YouTube Content ID search results

Once you have a list like the one above, you can sort through it and see how you want to handle each file.  I recommend making multiple searches using various keyword combinations.  If you are searching for bogus pirate film files, including the word “full” or “full movie” are helpful.  When you find illegal copies of your work, take note of what keywords the uploader used as it may provide insight into what search terms to use.

There’s also an option to send the entire list to “automated review.” That can be helpful if the clips include snippets of your film or music, but in the example above, most of the results point to dummy uploads (i.e. 10 minutes of black video with a single frame from pirated film).  As I mentioned,  YouTube Content ID cannot match these to any content, users are forced to look at each one by one and remove them.  It’s tedious and time-consuming, but necessary.

Another option on your CMS dashboard is the option to view all “claims” that have been generated, either through manual search (shown above) or via YouTube Content ID.  In terms of the latter, when a file is uploaded that matches your claimed content, it’s automatically added to your claims list. You can predetermine what happens to any matches (blocking or monetization) but if you choose to remove a file entirely, you must manually change the designation to “takedown.”  Here’s an example from our CMS dashboard claims page that lists a number of recent pirate uploads linking to our film and some fan tributes/mashups.

YouTube Content ID claims

In either case, whether discovering a questionable upload via search results or the claims list, if you find a file that contains  your copyrighted content you can select it, and claim it based on your original reference version (note the bogus “Dreamworks” logo on this example used to make it look legit).

YouTube Content ID fake pirate video links


We tend to monetize the fan videos and remove (takedown) the pirate links.  In the example below (pirate link to offsite version of our film) we chose “takedown.

Once you’ve taken down a video, viewers visiting the link will see this:

YouTube Content ID claim on YouTube

If a clip is discovered through video match, you can open the claim and change the default selection.  This clip was monetized automatically, but had we wanted to, we could have blocked the clip or removed it.  In this case, since it was a fan mashup, we chose to leave the default setting in place.

YouTube Content ID claim video match

The dashboard also provides users with the ability to view income and drill down into analytics to determine the demographics and locations of your viewers.  (Who knew lesbian rom-coms would be so popular in Saudi Arabia?)

YouTube Content ID report views

You can also keep track of income, though, not surprisingly, this is the weakest and most opaque part of this system.

YouTube Content demographic view report

In order to actually be paid for any income accrued through monetization of your content, you must also have an active Google AdSense account.  Fortunately, applying for an AdSense account is not all that difficult.  Once approved, you must link your YouTube Content ID account with your AdSense account and receive payouts once your income exceeds $100.  Depending on the type and amount of content you claim on YouTube, this can happen quickly or take months.

Is this system perfect?  The short answer is NO.  As mentioned previously, Content ID cannot catch the dozens or, in some cases, thousands of pirate uploads that contain dummy content but link to offsite downloads.  You’ll have to ferret these out using search and remove them manually, but it’s still a thousand times more efficient than having to send DMCA notices.

YouTube Content ID fail

The Content ID system  also seems to have a harder time finding clips that were previously uploaded to the site (before you claimed your content).  When you create a new account, it’s advisable use search option on a regular basis to double-check for uploaded content, rather than depend entirely on Content ID’s automatic matching capabilities.   If you do both, you can feel pretty good about having your bases covered when it comes to keeping pirated copies of your work off YouTube.

The other grey area with regard to the YouTube Content ID system and monetization is the utter lack of transparency.  How much does Google actually make off the ads that appear next to your content?  It’s not entirely clear and something Google should fix.  One can only assume it’s to Google’s benefit, and not the artist’s, to keep this part of the system as opaque as possible.

When you start claiming and monetizing your content online you may also have uploaders who protest, citing the oft-used “fair use” excuse.   If you have selected the option to monetize the content they uploaded, it’s usually as simple as writing them a short, polite message explaining that you own the rights to the material, but are not removing it, just monetizing it.  However I’ve also had instances where someone uploads 10-minute sections of our film in multiple parts and claim “fair use” when I remove the clips.  Again, I send a polite note explaining “fair use” does not allow one to upload 10 minutes excerpts of a feature film.  It’s not a bad idea to include a link to Youtube’s copyright information/education pages as well.  Once I send a note, I generally never hear back.

Whether or not you earn much income from your claimed content depends on the volume of material present, and the number of views generated.   However, even if you won’t earn much in the way of income, it’s still worthwhile to take advantage of Content ID, if only to safeguard your work from piracy.  The analytics can also offer some useful information as to the demographics  and reach of your uploaded work and perhaps help guide you in developing effective new alternative approaches to online distribution.

Given today’s technology, there’s no reason websites around the globe can’t institute similar systems. Megaupload’s embattled Kim Dotcom likes to pontificate (to anyone who will listen) and claims he’s “…at the forefront of creating the cool stuff that will allow creative works to thrive in an Internet age. I have the solutions to your problems. I am not your enemy.”   

Were that really true, why didn’t Mr. Dotcom use technology to transform into legitimate UGC (user-generated content) by implementing a Content ID system like YouTube’s?  Oh right, he would have had to share the profits.  Despite his disingenuous rhetoric to the contrary, for him, theft for profit trumps technology any day of the week.

For sites that hope to create a legitimate business model to “share” creative work, providing content creators with technological tools to control online access to their work should be mandatory.  If and when Congress revisits the antiquated DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act) why not make such fingerprinting technology a requirement for meeting the “safe harbor” provisions of the law. Such a requirement wouldn’t “break” the internet, but could go a long way in mitigating piracy’s negative impact.

As online distribution options grow and improve, hopefully indie artists can say goodbye to the opaque revenue “sharing” model imposed by YouTube and take their content to sites/businesses where formulas for compensation are more transparent, and more generous to those who actually create the content.

For now, however, something is a whole lot better than nothing….

Update 12/13/13:  See what’s happening with YouTube changes to Content ID on Multi Channel Networks and their affiliates on Plagiarism Today here: