The Star Wars Video That Baffled YouTube's Copyright Cops
Wired Jeremy Hsu 8.2.17
Every director knows that the score can make the scene. Anyone who’s ever watched a rough cut without soundtrack music can confirm this. Case in point: Something weird happens to the beloved throne room scene that ends the original 1977 Star Wars if you’re crazy enough to delete John Williams’ brassy music from it: Instead of a triumphal award ceremony, it becomes an awkward mime interrupted by sporadic coughing, an occasional strangled yell from the hairy humanoid alien Chewbacca, and tepid applause from a crowd of Rebel troopers.
Fans of the YouTube channel Auralnauts, which posted the doctored Star Wars scene in 2014 as a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the emotional power of Williams’ score, loved it for that weirdness. But another set of viewers—those with the rights to the movie’s soundtrack—tuned in to these sounds of silence and heard something else: the ka-ching of a cash register.
That’s what the Auralnauts discovered earlier this summer when they received word that Warner/Chappell—the global music publishing arm of Warner Music Group—had filed a monetization claim on their “Star Wars Minus Williams” video through YouTube's Content ID System. That’s right: The copyright holder was claiming ownership of something that wasn’t there. Under the claim, Warner would receive any future ad revenue the video earns, which has been viewed more than 4 million times. The company’s effort to monetize silence transformed the Auralnauts video: Once just a clever gag, it quickly became a flashpoint in the broader YouTube conflict between freedom of expression and copyright protection.
Since 2012, the Auralnauts—Zak Koonce and Craven Moorhaus—have paired original, electronica-inspired music with parodies of internet culture and popular Hollywood franchises on their YouTube channel. Koonce, the filmmaker and main comedic voice of the duo, occasionally shows his face; Moorhaus, the composer, hides his features behind a helmet during his rare appearances.
Neither appears in their “Throne Room” parody. The video does feature a few seconds of (copyright-free) music at the beginning, a Williams-esque passage from Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.” And it concludes with four seconds of a brief loop from the original Williams score’s familiar ending—a cheeky musical reminder of what listeners are missing throughout most of the video.
The Auralnauts channel has steadily grown to more than 48 million views and 200,000 subscribers in total—enough so that the New York City-based creators have harbored hopes of focusing on their YouTube channel full time instead of working other jobs. The Warner/Chappell claim, along with others filed against their work, threatened to thwart such ambitions. (The Auralnauts didn’t face similar challenges to their reuse of video material in the “Minus Williams” piece, perhaps because it represents such a tiny fraction of the full movie that it qualifies as fair use.)
The music industry has long complained about YouTube making ad money at the expense of music copyright holders under “safe harbor” provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that excuse service providers from being liable for copyright infringements. In response, Google-owned YouTube points to its automated Content ID system, which gives copyright holders the option to either take down videos based on copyright claims or take the ad revenue generated from the videos.
The monetization option has proven especially popular among music publishers. A 2016 report by Google found that music companies chose to monetize more than 95 percent of YouTube videos involved in copyright claims instead of blocking the videos, and YouTube ended up paying the music industry $1 billion in ad revenue that year. Still, YouTube isn’t paying copyright owners the way subscription-based streaming services are: A 2017 report by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) estimated that a for-pay service such as Spotify paid record companies $20 per user in 2015, whereas ad-supported YouTube paid less than $1 per music user.
Since debuting in 2007, Content ID has helped maintain an uneasy truce between YouTube and copyright holders, even as YouTube has displaced broadcast radio and other music streaming services to become the most popular format for people to discover new songs and listen to music. But in the case of the Auralnauts, the steady stream of copyright claims filed through Content ID has taken a toll.
“The more time we've dedicated to the channel, the less money we make from it,” Koonce says. “Our views and subscribers go up, but our ability to make money on the content has become less effective.”
About 99.5 percent of monetization claims on sound recordings are automated through the Content ID System, according to statistics provided by a YouTube spokesperson. The system uses digital fingerprinting of audio and video to flag infringements of copyrighted material uploaded to the service.
But in the case of “Star Wars Minus Williams,” someone at Warner/Chappell took the rare step of manually filing a claim against the Auralnauts video. Warner/Chappell has been notably enthusiastic in manually flagging multiple Auralnauts videos, according to Koonce.
In an added twist, the Warner/Chappell claim incorrectly identified the “Star Wars Main Title” track as being present in the Auralnauts video. The single brief Williams excerpt used by the Auralnauts actually comes from a track titled “The Throne Room and End Title.” It’s also possible that Warner/Chappell mistook the Holst piece for Williams’ original music (it’s easy to do).
“While yes, there is technically a trace of John Williams present in our video, it is neither enough to arguably warrant a claim nor is it even the correct track they are claiming,” Koonce says.
Koonce and Moorhaus disputed the claim through YouTube’s system. That choice makes the Auralnauts' case even more unusual: Such claims are challenged less than one percent of the time, according to YouTube.
Warner/Chappell responded by rejecting the dispute of its claim. That left the Auralnauts with a tough choice: They could appeal the rejected dispute by providing more information about themselves and their reasoning. But if a copyright claimant such as Warner/Chappell does not back down from its claim, the video is likely to get taken down from YouTube entirely—and in that event, the Auralnauts would also be penalized by the platform as a copyright scofflaw and barred from some privileges, such as linking to their own store. Three such takedowns and YouTube will delete your channel. That may deter flagrant copyright violators, but it also discourages legitimate challenges of unfair copyright claims.
YouTube has taken steps to help out YouTube channel creators. In November 2015, the site unveiled a Fair Use Protection program to help cover the legal costs for a select group of channels that YouTube determines has been unfairly targeted with video takedowns. Last year, it changed the Content ID system to allow creators’ videos to continue earning ad revenue (held in escrow) even if a copyright claim has been made against them.
Still, the Auralnauts say they have few options to fight what they view as unfair claims on their content. Koonce suggested possible Content ID improvements that could prevent the same false claims from being repeatedly filed against the same video by different claimants. “People need to protect their IP, but don’t give them all the power," he says.
A smarter profit-sharing system would differentiate better between, say, a video of Queen performing “Bohemian Rhapsody” or the same song playing in the background of someone's wedding video.
“What is needed is a more nuanced approach to how stuff gets monetized,” says Robert Lyons, a former digital media executive who is now a visiting lecturer at Northeastern University in Boston.
In any case, Lyons suggests that the Auralnauts video has a very good chance of being protected under fair use legal doctrine—the legal concept that allows for music and video parodies, among other exceptions to copyright infringement. “I think that a mere five seconds of the title’s music in a work that clearly is transformative and [that] poses no threat to the commercial potential of the original work would have a very strong fair use defense,” Lyons says.
When I tried to get Warner/Chappell’s side of this story, the company offered no comment. But apparently my reporting helped bring the “Star Wars Minus Williams” copyright dispute to an unexpectedly speedy resolution. When Koonce told his YouTube partner manager that a journalist had interviewed him, YouTube stepped in and removed the copyright claim against the video. The YouTube representatives “were suddenly all ears about our issues and wanted to do anything they could to help,” Koonce says.
That’s a happy ending of sorts. But it feels more like the awkward “Minus Williams” throne room ceremony than the original triumphant conclusion of Star Wars IV: A New Hope. It's certainly not a systematic solution for copyright claim issues affecting the Auralnauts and other YouTube channels. You can’t always count on a reporter calling or a platform caring.
Jeremy Hsu is a science and tech journalist based in New York.