YouTube once was an easy, fun spot where ordinary Janes and Joes could find fifteen minutes of fame with materials that were patently good and bad to even the least discerning eyes. The Google-owned, online service also was a place for folks young and old to do some comedic spouting and to offer how-tos, such as a step-by-step tutorial on knotting a tie. It since has become a major platform for musicians, both for the aspiring to share stuff in hopes of hitting it big and for fans to keep up with hot music videos by those who have.
But as the Tube has grown or grown up as a significant content channel, so too have its complications. And as creatives, like avant-garde cellist and netizen Zoe Keating have complained, YouTube may now be a worrisome legal thicket, with contracts, clauses, warnings, complexities, and uncertainties. Attention, Entertainment Law attorneys? Keating’s YouTube channel, for now, plays on. That’s unexpected based on her viral beefs with YouTube’s new “terms” for musicians posting on its site. The Guardian neatly summarizes the parties’ positions — and what seems to be a big issue here: communication. Counselors, let’s look in on this notable online dispute for what it may say about new areas of opportunity:
Confusing contract terms
As the British news outlet makes clear, Keating has expressed her displeasure with YouTube’s announced new requirements for her and her works, posted on YouTube. These terms likely were not the same as those the Internet giant had offered to major and independent record labels regarding their clients’ channels on the site. But then record labels possess a leverage and legal support that independents lack and companies aren’t shy about negotiating to get their clients more favorable agreements, right?
But these are changing times, which, in some ways have benefited creatives greatly. They no longer labor exclusively, as they might once have, say, a half century ago, for studios or publishing houses that laid full legal claim on everything they wrote and performed. Many artists have found new freedom in the DIY (‘do-it-yourself)’ digital age.
Keating had pursued a path of putting her music out there on her own terms, working without labels, agents, and lawyers. Her talent is undeniable, as her videos show, and her creative moxie is even more apparent because she does it all — she creates her work, performs it, mixes it, and produces it. As she also has made clear, all this activity is economic, too: She’s openly shared her struggle to support herself, son, and her husband, a composer who has Stage IV lung cancer; she has detailed her musical finances, including her pay from other online sites she works with, such as Bandcamp and Pandora.
Her consternation with YouTube, its Content Key and Music Key systems, and its legal claims on her posted works, not only have boiled over on her blog, they’ve become an online cause: See here and here and here. Other artists, such as song writer Zack Hemsey, have gone online to criticize YouTube and its current ways of working with artists.
An online behemoth
There’s a crushing reality to this controversy, however: YouTube dominates the online video world in a way like no other. It says it records more than 1 billion unique visits montly, with viewers watching more than 6 billion hours of videos on the service each month; every minute, it says, fans upload 100 hours of video content to the site. The service makes no secret that it seeks to make money — lots of it: millions of dollars for some creatives, billions for parent company Google. It provides online materials on what creatives should expect and can learn about working with it, especially on the issue of rights.
Maybe there’s a wider role for intermediaries to assist artists with YouTube-Google in its current incarnation as a massive enterprise. Once upon a time, a TV channel created, played and popularized music, especially music videos. Old enough to remember the original 90210 with its original cast? The MTV may be something of an iconic institution, especially in its support of contemporary music; the tunes it helped to make hits also can be played still, of course, in a YouTube channel or vertical. Might some rockers find it easier to deal with an outlet like an MTV to get even wider play on behemoth YouTube?
Or maybe what YouTube, Google, and the net have surfaced and made all too transparent and visible is some sausage-making stuff that some experts already are familiar with — music industry contracts; Entertainment lawyers long have negotiated agreements in difficult, hand-wringing, complex situations. And maybe there’s a gap in counsel that DIY creatives may need to seek some tested options for, including getting legal representation when confronting long, wordy, important contracts and documents? And maybe Entertainment Law practitioners could convey better how they could help in situations like these?