YouTube: Home to illegal and not-so-illegal content


YouTube is inundated with music covers, but what is concerning to some is the legal implications of people posting videos of copyrighted content.

Quite a few music artists, including Justin Bieber, Tori Kelly and Charlie Puth were picked up by the music industry after posting videos of themselves singing covers on YouTube.

Christian Allred and ____ Allred performing at The Velour (Emily Allred)
Christian Allred and his sister Lissie Allred performing at The Velour. (Emily Allred)

“It’s pretty popular because you can easily gain some exposure with YouTube,” said Christian Allred, a BYU English major and musician.

The big question, and one not that easy to answer, is whether this is legal.

A copyright violation occurs when someone takes copyrighted material and uses it without permission.

A cover is someone’s own version of a popular song. They might change a chord or two, but the song remains basically the same.

Quint Randle, associate professor in the School of Communications at BYU, is a member of the band Joshua Creek. His recording and performing work has given him personal experience with covers and copyrighted music.

“If Katy Perry releases a song and I immediately do a cover of it, I can just get popular off her coattails, if I just do a cover version of it — that’s why that’s so popular right now,” Randle said.

Much of music copyright today is handled by publishers, such as ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) and BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.).

These publishers act as liaisons between the music artists and the general public. They issue licenses to venues and companies, so artists get paid for their music.

The owner of Audio West in Orem, David Devany, buys licensing rights through the publishing companies with a yearly fee. The two big publishing companies, ASCAP and BMI, cover 99 percent of all the music out there, Devany said.

These publishing companies don’t send lists of songs that are covered with their licensing, but if someone hears a song that isn’t covered by them, the publishing company could fine the venue if the musicians are trying to make money off of the song.

“Most people aren’t going to sue you, they’ll just be like, ‘pay me a percentage of whatever you made off that song.’ It’s usually pennies on the dollar,” Devany said.

With changes in technology, however, application of the law has become a little more confusing. YouTube, for example, isn’t a physical venue, but it has put a system in place for making sure everything on its site is legal.

Michael Hicks, a BYU professor of music composition & theory, has recorded with BYU’s Tantara Records. He used a 30-second clip he recorded with them in a keynote address for the Association for Mormon Letters in March 2015. After posting the keynote address on YouTube, the video was taken down within an hour. He was able to refute the claim of copyright infringement because it was his music.

YouTube has tried to put measures in place to combat illegally-used copyrighted material. The system, called Content ID, helps publishers identify when their material has been used by someone other than the copyright owner.

YouTube allows individuals to report copyright violations for their copy-righted material. YouTube’s section about fair use, explains that copyright-protected material is acceptable for use only in circumstances of “works of commentary, criticism, research, teaching or news reporting.” As a disclaimer, YouTube’s website states that individuals should consult experts for legal advice before uploading content with copyrighted material.

Some YouTube uploaders will use copyrighted material and try to pass it off by posting a disclaimer saying, “I do not own. No intended copyright infringement.” However, just by indicating that the copyright is not owned by the uploader does not mean the video usage meets fair use, according to Hicks.

“There are massive violations all the time, and you can’t control it,” Hicks said.

Randle uploaded a video a couple years ago of a Christmas song to YouTube that Joshua Creek had played for a gig. His video was shut down shortly thereafter.

“It’s kind of hit and miss,” Randle said. “I will put one cover up and it’s fine, and then another cover won’t get approved.”

In 2011, YouTube signed an agreement with NMPA (National Music Publishers Association) and HFA (Harry Fox Agency). This contract gave uploaders the ability to upload some copyrighted material.

The copyright owners have a few options for what they want to do with the videos that violate copyright. They can mute the audio of the video, block the whole video altogether, or place ads on the video. When YouTube place ads on the video, the copyright owner can make money off of someone else’s video.

Another issue with covers and copyright is that millennials often have different ideas about how copyright should be treated, according to Randle.

“As time’s gone on, the younger generation — millennials — they just don’t believe in copyright. They don’t believe that, you know, things should be owned privately,” Randle said.

Ari Davis
Russell DeJesus performs a cover at The Wall’s open mic night. (Ari Davis)

Russell De Jesus, a BYU student, auditioned for America’s Got Talent this past year with a cover of Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” because he didn’t feel comfortable singing one of his originals.

“Creativity is knowing how to hide your sources,” De Jesus said, quoting Einstein. “They’re piggy-backing on someone else.”

Hicks said covers can give people the opportunity to be more interactive with music. Producers and managers have been able to find people to sign on their label because of YouTube. The bad side to covers is that they’re predatory, according to Hicks.

Hick feels that covers have a “leech-like quality” of the original work.

“On the one hand, it’s an homage to the original artist’s work. It can also be erosive to their work because it’s draining from their unique product,” Hicks said.

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