On Monday, a legal settlement between media giant Viacom and Google and the acquisition of YouTube multi-channel network Maker Studios by Disney shook the foundations of digital media distribution. The space of a few hours cut short the longest-standing legal battle in online video copyright history and brought massive traditional media conglomerates into the online space for the first time. Disney now owns a massive chunk of all gaming content produced on YouTube, and Viacom might currently be in a position to begin working very closely with Google and content creators rather than antagonizing them. The aftermath of these drastic shifts will take time to surface, but the effects immediately inform the structure of videos online.
YouTube, as the world’s largest distributor and host of online video, has constantly had to struggle with conflicting interests in the battle for copyright and intellectual property. An ever-growing population of creators using chiefly game-based media as the foundation for commentary, criticism or comedy has been pitted against the rights-holding traditional media sector, which includes corporations in music, film, television, and gaming. In response to overwhelming pressure from larger media conglomerates, online producers have created a number of multi-channel networks, including the recently-purchased Maker Studios and other giants like Machinima.
Last year sparked a significant amount of discussion about one of the primary products of the constant copyright debates: YouTube’s Content ID system, which automatically matches visual and sonic material in videos to an ever-growing database of references provided by rights holders. This system has most directly impacted Let’s Play-ers, whose usage of long clips of game footage and music frequently triggers red flags from Content ID. Cutscenes and strong boss battle music in particular have tended to be dangerous, enough so that many content creators have been changing their formatting to focus on filming their own faces and placing commentary tracks about game audio.
Content ID matches or other copyright violations bring strikes against channels, which have far-reaching effects: depending on the number of strikes a channel has, they might suffer the removal of monetization, loss of videos, or in later cases, complete channel shutdown. YouTube personality TotalBiscuit, whose channel is managed by Maker, dissected the problems with Content ID in late 2013 after his posting of a harshly critical video sparked a retaliatory and baseless copyright claim from a small developer. Other content creators have expressed deep concern similar claims, pointing to the problems in the fire-first, ask questions later approach of the strike system; aggressive claims can spell doom for a smaller channel, or even a long-standing creator who isn’t affiliated with a network.
What do all these developments mean for content creators and consumers? In all likelihood, we are approaching an online market that will appear more like traditional media forms like film and television. The massive infusion of capital and marketing resources brought to the table by Disney could catapult Maker Studios’ channels to previously unreachable heights and start drawing out viewers from other areas of YouTube. Multi-channel networks, entrenched like this, would break up the landscape of online video to the point that it could become even more difficult for new, unaffiliated channels to break through into public view.
To be fair, the YouTube-watching community needs to be careful about overzealous reactions. After all, the acquisition might only bring a new flow of funding into internet video that proves its strength and longevity enough that the entire space will be much more vibrant. For traditional media rights holders, these shifts will likely be incredibly positive, and under the current legal climate, having a higher stake in online video is a highly positive phenomenon.
Most importantly, then, we have to be vigilant, and assess each new development on a case-by-case basis. If Disney, Viacom, and others start to intervene in online content creation and distribution, there will certainly be long-lasting and formative consequences for this unbelievably rapidly expanding industry. These changes do not necessarily have to be negative, but consolidation and entrenching of large financial powers in other industries has been consistently toxic. Higher barriers to entry and aggression against new creators ensures that content quickly becomes stale and innovation grinds to a halt. For an industry driven by a group of dedicated creators who have had to defend every second of their footage from day one and be creative to succeed, stifling new developments could prove disastrous.