On YouTube, unlicensed music can mean daunting federal lawsuits

Who bears the responsibility for copyright compliance?


Rae Votta


Published Feb 18, 2015   Updated May 29, 2021, 12:25 pm CDT

As YouTube continues to grow as big business, the lawsuits keep coming.

Freeplay, a music licensing service, has been locked in litigation with several mutlichannel networks over the rights and use of its music on YouTube channels in recent weeks. First, Machinima and Collective Digital Studio filed federal lawsuits against Freeplay for what they call a “bait and switch tactic.” According to their complaint, they allege that Freeplay woos creators with “free” music, then adds licensing fees after music has already been included in a video. Using TuneStat, an audio fingerprint technology, Freeplay then threatens copyright action when fees are not paid.

“Both Machinima and Collective Digital Studio are honored to be a part of a vibrant and new creative community that produces incredible content and shares it with the world,” a spokesperson for both companies told Deadline. “We take our commitment to that community, both to the creators and the legitimate rights holders out there, very seriously. When unscrupulous parties refuse to play by the rules and seek to take advantage of creators, we have and will fight for the community’s ability to entertain audiences. Beyond this sentiment, we will not be commenting on this pending litigation.”

This week Freeplay fired back against other multichannel networks, filing lawsuits in New York federal court against Disney’s Maker Studios, DreamWorks Animation’s AwesomenessTV, Big Frame, and BroadbandTV Corp. Its suits allege that creators under these networks are using music without paying the proper fees.

There are two licenses required by video products, a “synchronization license” that matches music to visuals, as well as a second license that covers public performance. Freeplay grants free synch licenses, notably through a deal with Apple that allows DVD Studio Pro and Final Cut Pro users access to a music library for personal videos. Creators who either accessed the free synch license music via that program, or from Freeplay’s Web offering, allegedly did not obtain the correct performance licenses to display the videos on YouTube.

“Freeplay Music was forced to bring these lawsuits in order to protect its rights, just as any other copyright owner in any other industry would do,” reads a press release from the company. “The systemic misappropriation of its copyrights without authorization has harmed our client. And if this conduct continues unchecked, it will continue to harm Freeplay Music and the hundreds of composers it represents. We seek to right that wrong through this action.”

The multichannel networks are bearing the brunt of this litigation since YouTube placed the onus for determining if copyright infringement is happening with member channels on the networks that control them. This means that Freeplay isn’t automatically notified if its music is used incorrectly, and it’s why it took to TuneStat to analyze and determine alleged infringement.

In total Freeplay has noted 200 cases of infringement, and is asking $150,000 per instance, equaling a hefty bill if successful. This is not the first copyright claim facing YouTube creators in recent years, from beauty vlogger Michelle Plan in disputes with a Grammy-nominated DJ, to a collective of musicians taking issue with Google’s Music Key application infringing on their rights.

The defendants declined to comment on ongoing litigation.

H/T Hollywood Reporter | Illustration by Fernando Alfonso III

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*First Published: Feb 18, 2015, 6:00 pm CST