YouTube Content ID

Why anyone can upload your music to YouTube (and why they haven’t been sued out of existence)

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YouTube is the world’s largest music-discovery platform, where indie musicians can monetize their music and anyone can post whatever they want, whether they own the rights or not. What does that mean for you and your music?

In the first video installment in this series, I discussed that one of the reasons YouTube has gotten so huge is because it allows anyone to upload whatever content they want to on the platform, what they call “user-generated content” or UGC, even if the uploader doesn’t own the rights to the content.

This allows videos to go viral — which is great — but it also allows for massive copyright infringement. Today, I want to address how it is possible that anyone can infringe on an artist’s copyrights on YouTube and the platform hasn’t been sued out of existence yet.

For that, we have another acronym to thank — the infamous DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act). The DMCA is the US law that interprets two global copyright treaties by the World Intellectual Property Organization. These treaties criminalize technologies that circumvent digital rights management, or DRM measures, and people’s attempts to circumvent those DRM measures.

Now interestingly, and essential to YouTube’s survival and success, it also exempts Internet service providers like Verizon, ATT, and Xfinity — and intermediaries like YouTube — from liability when their networks or platforms are used to disseminate or consume copyright-infringing content.

The argument is that it is impossible for those platforms to police all the content flowing through their pipes and that allowing access to digital content is of greater interest to the public than holding the large ISPs liable for infringing content.

Whether you like it or not, that’s the law.

How Content ID works

For YouTube to continue to operate, however, they’ve had to implement technology to identify the owners of all the content on their platform. This technology, called Content ID, allows YouTube to identify three different kinds of content:

  1. video content
  2. music sound recording content
  3. music compositions

Content ID recognizes content in clips as short as 30 seconds, and other YouTube admin platforms can identify snippets of a song used in someone’s video as short as just six seconds. When Content ID identifies content that is owned by a third party — music you own the rights to in someone else’s video, for example — it allows you to do one of two things: 1) issue a takedown notice to get the infringing content removed or 2) monetize the content, which is what most content owners end up doing.

Why monetize instead of issuing takedown requests?

Taking content down from YouTube is like playing whack-a-mole. With billions of users, each of whom can upload anything they want, whether they own the rights or not, as soon as one video with your music is removed, other videos with the same music will be uploaded by other users.

Content owners who request regular takedowns pay big bucks to YouTube content administrators to do so. As an independent artist, you just don’t have the budget to do this. Plus, why would you want to? At this stage of your music career, the unauthorized distribution of your music is not your biggest problem. Your biggest problem is that not enough people are hearing your music, and YouTube is a great platform for music discovery.

It may be hard to hear this, but the copyright infringement on YouTube’s platform is permitted and, for all intents and purposes, it can’t be stopped.

And while that is vexing and it can feel unfair, I recommend you put your anger and frustration aside and just accept it as fact. Some people will put your music on YouTube, even if you don’t want it there. And for all practical purposes, you won’t be able to stop it. It’s like getting upset that it’s been raining for three days straight. You could get angry over it. You want it to stop. But you can’t change a thing about it.

What music qualifies for monetization through YouTube’s Content ID?

Original music qualifies for monetization through Content ID, and you must own the rights to both the song composition and the sound recording. But there are some exceptions to this rule, because some audio content, even for original compositions, is not allowed to be monetized through Content ID.

Why? Well, if an audio element in your recording is similar enough or identical to an audio element in another recording, the Content ID system can be confused between the two songs, and who the official rights holder is, and therefore who to pay. So, the following kinds of audio content are ineligible for YouTube Content ID monetization:

  • karaoke recordings
  • remasters or sound-alike recordings
  • songs that use beats, loops, or samples made available for free within music apps or audio workstations such as GarageBand, Ableton, Fruity Loops, or Logic
  • songs using beats you’ve leased or purchased (unless you own that beat outright and no one else has the right to use it online)
  • songs with audio elements or samples that you don’t have the exclusive right to use
  • songs that use audio elements in the public domain or with open licenses such as creative commons

Note that even songs with exclusively licensed beats can be disqualified from Content ID if the beatmaker previously licensed that beat to other artists. So I strongly advise you that you ask the producer or beatmaker specifically about YouTube monetization and get all of that info in writing before purchasing any exclusive beats.

Cover songs on YouTube

So what about cover songs on YouTube? Well, cover songs are even more complicated. While legally distributing a cover song to a music streaming site is simple when you get a mechanical license, it’s not so straightforward on YouTube. For starters, YouTube is a video site, so to legally post your cover song, you need to secure a sync license from the publisher. Good luck getting that.

Now, many artists still upload cover songs on YouTube, of course. YouTube is full of cover songs. And almost no one is jumping through all the hoops of securing a license. YouTube’s Content ID system is smart enough that it can usually identify the original underlying composition of a song. And that will result in a claim on your recording by the publisher of the composition. That usually prevents you from monetizing the song, but in most cases, the song will be able to stay up on YouTube.

Another thing to note if your music falls in any of the ineligible categories listed above: Content ID is a monetization platform unique to YouTube. Just because some of your music might be ineligible for Content ID, it does not mean it is ineligible for distribution on music streaming platforms such as Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon, etc. You can simply get your mechanical license for a cover song and you can distribute your recording.

Watch more great videos on the Disc Makers YouTube channel.


Tony van Veen is the CEO of DIY Media Group, the parent company of Disc Makers and BookBaby. As a college student, he played in indie bands, created his own LPs, cassettes, and t-shirts, and sold them at shows. Today, he collects CDs, vinyl LPs, and concert t-shirts to support the artists he loves.

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