Many of us creative types don’t enjoy the practical, business side of such work. We’d prefer to focus on the enjoyable aspects, but the consequences of such behavior may be anything but fun. Case in point: YouTube’s copyright system. Understanding copyright in general and how YouTube specifically handles it can save you money and grief. It can also help you protect your rights as the creator of original content. When someone uses copyrighted material without permission, it’s called copyright infringement and it’s taken seriously.

You may have encountered people who don’t see your creative endeavors as actual work. They may even ask when you’re going to grow up and get a real job. Governments, though, do acknowledge creative work as real work. Feel free to use that the next time someone downplays your efforts. Copyright law recognizes the value of imagining, planning and implementing a video or other form of creative expression. Every creator wants to be paid for his or her work. Keep this in mind when you consider including others’ creations in your own.

How to copyright your creation

Copyrighting something is easy in the US; just create something that falls within the categories covered by copyright. Those would be literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright is automatic with any original work you create. If you dreamed it up, you own the rights, which include any financial or recognition rewards. You don’t have to do anything else, and you shouldn’t pay attention to bad advice. If you’ve heard you can mail something to yourself as proof, don’t believe it. It’s won’t stand up in court. Also, if you create something for someone else who pays you, that person or company gets the copyright. Copyright varies from country to country, but countries have agreements with each other to honor copyright, so protections exist for creations with international audiences.

It isn’t necessary to register your copyright, but you might want to. Registration does several things. First, it acts as official proof you’re the creator. Second, if you register your copyright within five years of creation, it’s considered prima facie (sufficient) evidence in court. Third, you may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney’s fees if someone infringes on your copyright. You can register online with the US government’s copyright site for a basic fee of $35. Expediting the process requires substantial additional fees, so it’s better to register before you require proof in court. Do this as soon as possible.

The limits of copyright

Some creations aren’t eligible for copyright, such as documents created by government employees for the federal government. Generally, you would be safe in using as much of these as you want. Be careful, though, as the government sometimes contracts work out, so a governmental creation may be wholly or partially copyrighted. Facts are also not eligible for copyright, but a collection of facts may be. Sometimes, too, artists make creations that are made for free use, including some music you can access through YouTube. Never assume you can use something without violating copyright unless this is clearly stated. Unsplash, for example, expressly states on its home page that it’s “The internet’s source of freely useable images.”

Most importantly, you can’t copyright ideas. Only the expression of an idea qualifies. This might be confusing, so let’s look at an example. We can summarize the idea behind “Star Wars” and “Guardians of the Galaxies” in the same way: An enormously powerful, evil entity is bent on Universe-wide destruction, and a small quirky band works together to defeat this entity. Naturally, the heroes are successful, and the Universe lives happily ever after.

However, the resulting movies are quite different in their details of characters, settings, plot twists and dialogue. In other words, they differ in their expression. Each movie in either series can be copyrighted without having the creators of the other series suing. However, if someone made a movie that was too close to either franchise, it would be copyright infringement. The exception to this is parody, as in the movie “Space Balls,” a humorous takeoff of the original Star Wars movies. If you’re making a satire, you’re safe.

Never assume you can use something without violating copyright unless this is clearly stated.

As if copyright wasn’t complex enough, sometimes different creators will produce creations that are coincidentally very similar. Neither has copied the other and copyright infringement hasn’t occurred. Courts must examine such occurrences on a case-by-case basis. This would be an instance of why you might want to register your copyright.

How YouTube protects content creators

YouTube has various programs to address potential copyright violations. One is Content ID, YouTube’s method of checking that people uploading videos to the platform are the creators or that they have permission to use the content. Those in YouTube’s Partner Program automatically get Content ID and other services. To be eligible for the Partner Program, you must have 4,000 public watch hours in the last 12 months and more than 1,000 subscribers.

Screenshot of YouTube Copyright management tools
Over the years, YouTube has developed several tools for managing copyright claims and stopping copyright infringement on the platform.

When you have Content ID, if someone uploads your creation, you’ll get notified by YouTube. You’ll then have several choices. You can submit a request to YouTube to take down the video. You can leave it up and add advertising you’ll get paid for. You can also track the video’s viewership statistics.

Additionally, YouTube has a Copyright Match Tool specifically for those whose content is frequently uploaded by others, most often large companies. These companies fiercely protect their rights to music, movies, and other creative content because they don’t want to lose money. YouTube is making this tool available to more users. If you’re one of these users, you can access it through the Copyright tab in the left navigation of YouTube Studios. This tool will locate full reuploads for you. You can also use the manual claiming tab in the Content Verification Program to search for videos.

It’s important that you don’t purposely or accidentally misuse these complicated tools because YouTube will bring action against you. These tools are for those who’ve proven themselves aware of YouTube’s policies in general and specifically with copyright rules. If you’re at all unsure about copyright, either don’t make a claim or work with someone who does fully understand how the system works.

Not eligible for the Partner Program?

If you’re not a big producer of videos or if you’re still working on qualifying for the Partner Program, you do have protection. Once you upload your original content, it becomes licensed and you retain all ownership rights. If someone has reuploaded your video or parts of it without your permission or has copied your work and claimed it as his or her own, you can submit a copyright complaint through YouTube’s webform. Fill out the form that’s open to any YouTube user, but only if you are the content owner or a representative.

Serious consequences of copyright infringement

In general, copyright infringement can result in getting sued by the copyright owner. That means an appearance in court, the necessity of hiring a lawyer, paying a hefty fine and possibly the owners’ legal fees as well. And since the real owner probably doesn’t live in your town, you’d have to pay for travel for yourself and your attorney, plus any witnesses you have.

YouTube adds in several more negatives. A first violation gets you a warning on the assumption the violation was out of ignorance. A second violation becomes a copyright strike, with the loss of access to your channel for one week. The strike stays in place for 90 days. If you get three copyright strikes in 90 days, YouTube will take down your channel and ban you for life. And of course, the actual owner of the copyrighted material or video has the right to request a takedown of the video or put ads on it and receive the revenue from those. Simply taking down your own video won’t delete the strike.

How to avoid YouTube copyright strikes

To avoid copyright strikes, don’t use anything someone else has created without express permission. Even a snippet is a violation. It’s also not OK to record a performance yourself and post it. Additionally, copyright takes a long time to expire and it can be renewed, even by heirs. About the only things you’re safe with are those that have no creator of record, such as fairy tales and folk stories. If you’re not sure, check. Or use something you create or that’s been created for free use.

To avoid copyright strikes, don’t use anything someone else has created without express permission.

It’s possible to get a strike when you haven’t deliberately and knowingly used another’s work. In that case, you have the option of contesting the strike. But don’t try to claim ignorance as a defense. You’re expected to understand what you can and can’t use in your videos. Just so you know, unfair strikes – ones falsely claiming copyright infringements – get noted and punished as well. False claims can result in suspension from YouTube or other legal consequences.

Fair Use: What it is and isn’t

The fair use exception to using copyrighted material without permission is restricted to criticism, comment, parody, news reporting, teaching, scholarship and research, especially where the user isn’t making money. However, even if you don’t monetize your educational video, don’t assume you can use whatever you want without a creator’s explicit permission. Remember, a creator will probably want to get paid every time his or her creation is reproduced. YouTube’s algorithm is constantly checking for such things. In this case, it’s better to ask for permission instead of forgiveness.

If you believe yours is a case of fair use, consider the factors a court would look at, especially the effect of this use on the potential market or on the value of the copyrighted material. If people can get something for free, they’re much less likely to pay for it. Big business and YouTube do work closely together to monitor uploads because of this. If the copyright owners can earn money on music, for example, and you put that in your video, you potentially affect their sales. Recent court rulings say remixes or snippets are not fair use.

Understanding copyright on YouTube

If you rigorously apply three key concepts of copyright for YouTube, you should be fine. First, remember that creators want the rewards for their creations, both credit and profit. Even if you make no money when you use their material, it can prevent them from making money because people can view or listen for free. Second, always ask permission and get it before using another’s copyrighted material. If you don’t have permission, don’t use it. Third, use YouTube’s tools to protect your own fully original creations or ones with parts you have permission to use. Make these your standard operating procedures. Then you should feel more confident as you create your next great video.


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