Lawyers on YouTube discover a way to steal “free” music.


Unscrupulous lawyers have worked out a disgusting money-making scam on YouTube.

If you haven’t heard of Kevin MacLeod, you probably have.

Kevin is an incredibly talented composer who has done the unthinkable – made his enormous library of soundtrack-quality music available to everybody; to use for whatever purposes they want. All he asks in return is a musical credit.

As a result, the chances are you’ve heard something he’s composed. From daft videos on YouTube (like the ones I’ve made) to the high-quality erotica of Pandora Blake (not safe for work, friends) Kevin’s provided the soundtrack.

But since Kevin hasn’t been making any profit from his hard work, some greedy lawyers have decided that they might as well do so – and Kevin recently exposed what appears to be a truly astonishing scam being carried out with his music at the heart of it.

The scam exploits YouTube’s scrupulous copyright protection systems; which vigorously protect against people uploading copyrighted content that they don’t have rights to (something I wholeheartedly applaud YouTube for instigating.)

YouTube has written complex algorithms that match music and images to a database of copyrighted material; so they can highlight instantly where and when people are violating copyright rules (which is a task that would be impossible manually, as YouTube has eight years worth of video uploaded to its servers every single day.)

To populate these databases, music companies (or their lawyers) can “claim” pieces of music – and they receive checks when copyright violations are discovered (any money made by the videos goes to the copy right holders rather than the video owners.)

And this is where the scam comes in.

The Orchard Music and the Harry Fox Agency are both alleged to be cashing in by claiming rights to music that’s in the public domain.

Unscrupulous companies like The Orchard Music and the Harry Fox Agency have (allegedly) swept in and lain claim to a library of music that is actually in the public domain (and therefore should be freely available for anybody to use.)

These include tunes like Amazing Grace, and the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, in compositions made freely available by people like Kevin. (A partial list of songs illegally claimed by companies and agencies that have no rights to them can be found here.)

As a result, when people use these pieces of music in their videos (which they are legally entitled to do) it erroneously flags them as a “copyright violation” with YouTube – and the lawyers who’ve stolen rights to these songs cash in.

Obviously video makers can appeal against this copyright claim – in which case the lawyers either release the rights, or let the claim “time out”, because they have no legal claim to them – but only a small percentage of those who’ve been impacted by this scam ever do so. The rest of the time, the lawyers sit back and let the money roll in.

It’s absolutely disgusting.

I am a huge fan of YouTube, so I’m not sure why they wouldn’t punish or restrict companies from doing this. Yet, then again, the genius of this scam is that it exploits holes in the copyright protection systems that YouTube have instigated which are practically impossible to be managed by anything other than algorithm – so it’s entirely possible that YouTube simply don’t have an easy solution to stop lawyers doing this.

For example, after The Orchard Music released rights to dozens of songs they didn’t have a claim to, the Harry Fox Agency went in and claimed them. Presumably when they eventually get forced to remove the fraudulent claims from YouTube’s contentID database, some other company will try to cash in on them instead.

It’s a sad, sad state of affairs – because ultimately the only people who lose out are folks like myself, who rely on talents like Kevin to give us music we can use in our videos. If this scam continues, Kevin will presumably remove his library of music from the public domain (and I can hardly blame him) and that will rob YouTube of many great videos produced by many talented up-and-coming filmmakers.

It also highlights that the scurge of the Internet – intellectual property theft – isn’t just limited to bloggers and the like.

I get why YouTube has to build complex algorithms to stop people uploading other people’s songs, music, videos and art (YouTube, along with Tumblr and Pinterest, has streamlined the science of plagiarism. At least YouTube is doing something about.)

In my recent post “Stealing Ginger”, I was confronted with dozens of people who’d just copied and pasted my picture from my blog and used it like it was their own (and if you thought I had a problem, check out this post from Forever Amber.)

When I challenged one of the offenders, Eat Run Swag, about stealing my picture by sending him an invoice for “commercial rights”, he emailed me back with this:

I’m not paying you for something I copied and pasted from Google.

And therein, my friends, lies the problem. Whether it’s entitled Swaggerazzi bloggers like Eat Run Swag, or multi-million dollar legal firms like The Harry Fox Agency, people these days simply don’t get, or don’t care, that taking your digital assets is just as much theft as stealing your physical possessions.

(And before I wrap this up, I’ll come clean – I have been guilty of this as well. If you read old blog posts, you’ll see many which use pictures I just copied and pasted from a Google search, and YouTube caught me out on using copyrighted music on some of my early videos. The only difference is that I educated myself; and my opinion changed rapidly when it was my content being stolen. More people need to do the same.)

Militant Ginger on the Road