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Would YouTube's copyright police ruin Twitch?

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If YouTube buys video game streaming company Twitch for $1 billion, a deal multiple reports suggest is imminent, the San Francisco startup has a lot to look forward to: Much more cash, a better global infrastructure, and the invaluable clout of being a Google company.

However, when the deal was first reported yesterday, the hashtag #RIPTwitch trended on Twitter as the website’s fans worried about what fate awaited their favorite live streaming platform.

The biggest potential problem facing a newly Google-ized Twitch is YouTube’s infamous Content ID system, the tool YouTube uses to identify and block copyrighted material around the world.

Using copyrighted music is ostensibly against Twitch’s terms of service. But Twitch streamers have notoriously played whatever music they please in the background on their streams. Some of the most popular streamers in the site’s history, from League of Legends player Alex Ich to StarCraft 2 star Idra, have thousands of hours of archives that contain unlicensed copyrighted music, videos that may be at risk if this deal goes through.

If YouTube buys Twitch, the worst case scenario is that millions of videos are suddenly blocked and unwatchable because of the copyrighted material that is playing on them.

Worse, YouTube's algorithms have a history of making serious mistakes, flagging videos that contain no copyrighted material at all.  Late last year, for instance, it blocked a game-maker from uploading video of his own game. And, once flagged, uploaders can’t run their own ads, which causes them to lose out on their entire revenue stream.

The content ID system has also been fooled so that ad revenue is diverted to people who have no copyright claim over videos. In one case, a channel named 4GamerMovie claimed rights to all reviews, Let’s Plays, and walkthroughs for games such as Metro: Last Light and Saint’s Row. It took the publisher itself stepping up to support the original video makers and speak out against the copyright thief. Even when game makers such as Deep Silver and Capcom have publicly declared support and given explicit permission for for the YouTube video makers to use their games, the videos have still been taken down.

Some of YouTube’s biggest video game streamers say the copyright system is a real threat to their livelihood.

"Four fucking years of hard work, now in jeopardy, because of your new blanket system that completely favors big corporations and anybody with a lot of [money] whether it's right or wrong," gaming critic Joe Vargas said in a video last year.

YouTube’s copyright chaos affects entire countries. Germans know too well what it feels like to see blocked videos on YouTube: Google has repeatedly run into major issues when it comes to copyrights in Germany so that millions of major videos are blocked specifically in that country. If YouTube buys Twitch, will the live streaming company inherit those issues?

Twitch has repeatedly declined to comment on any story on this subject.

A copyright crusade would not shock many Twitch users. The service has been exploding in popularity for years and fans have known that the hammer would have to fall at some point, whether or not YouTube came into the picture.

How exactly Twitch handles the potential transitional period could define both the past and future of the company. At stake? Three years of videos made by tens of millions of users.

Illustration by Jason Reed