Over the past month there’s been an outcry among YouTube’s large community of gaming vloggers (video bloggers) as the ContentID system went mad and seemed intent on becoming the first computer program to achieve Skynet status. The system, designed to seek out and flag any copyright-infringing material, began flagging anything and everything, up to and including videos of an indie game uploaded by the game’s own creator. One of the most popular vlog formats on YouTube is called a Let’s Play video, in which a person, sometimes accompanied by a friend or two, records him or herself playing a game. The video is recorded straight from the game, something made easy with software such as Bandicam for PC or a game capture device that you plug your Xbox or Playstation into, something anyone can pick up from Micro Center starting at about $75. The software layers the player’s audio commentary over the sound of the game, giving the effect of hanging out with a friend watching them play. Often this is used as a format for reviewing a newer game, but some specialize in nostalgia, plugging their old Super Nintendos or Sega CDs into the capture device. This is such a popular format that some people actually make a living off it through ad revenue. One of the most popular channels, Game Grumps, has over 1,000 videos that have been watched in total over 350 million times. With each ad that runs at the beginning of a video earning a little bit of money, it’s enough to let the most popular vloggers quit their day jobs and devote all their time to what they love. But these copyright flags stop that money from coming in on the flagged videos, either by funneling it instead to the copyright claimant or by forcing the video to be removed completely. Earlier in the year there was a fuss when Nintendo started ordering take-down notices of vlogs featuring their games, but the Japanese gaming giant eventually backed off. It’s also become a tactic for game publishers who are looking to stifle bad reviews to file copyright take-down notices with YouTube, and while that’s considered a pretty nasty move by a lot of gamers they’re still within their rights to do so since the only content in these videos that strictly belongs to the vloggers is their own commentary. Think of it like Mystery Science Theater 3000, the show that riffed on old movies but could only use movies they had the rights to air. The comedians once involved with that show now do Rifftrax, audio-only recordings that you play alongside the movie. This allows them to do any movies they want regardless of rights because the movie isn’t included. Gamers who produce Let’s Play videos are doing so by the good grace of the game publishers, but unlike an MST3Ked movie, the game publishers usually see it more as free advertising for their games than as copyright infringement. But YouTube’s ContentID system is automated. No gaming company has to file a request for the video to be flagged, and this has led to some disturbingly random requests. Some vloggers have reported getting claims from THQ, a game publisher that no longer exists. Others have gotten notices claiming their content is owned by some random gaming blog. My own fledgling channel, Chainmail Bikini, got one on a Let’s Play of the Dungeons & Dragons MMORPG Neverwinter from something called “The Content Farm,” a company unrelated to anyone with actual rights to the game. My dispute, filed about two weeks ago, has yet to be answered, and in the meantime any revenue from my video, trifling as it may be, is being sent to them. The scariest part of all of this is that it seems to be working as intended. Any early hopes that this was all just a terrible glitch have been killed by YouTube’s own response, which simply said that they recently expanded ContentID’s scanning reach and gave tips for scrubbing your videos clean of anything that might be owned by someone else – regardless of whether that “someone else” cares if you use it. So thank you for that, Big Brother YouTube. We can all rest assured that your grossly imperfect, overzealous automated system is out there protecting us from the grim specter of Fair Use, telling us what we do and don’t want others to use.

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