Daily Tedium

Symbiotic Infringement

Pondering the shutdown of a YouTube user who uploaded lots of John Oliver videos over a multi-year period—and probably made John Oliver more popular.

By Ernie Smith

On a day when the news is utterly saturated with stories about a famous YouTube user getting blocked from the service, I’d like to spend some time writing about another YouTube user who was blocked from the service today.

You don’t know him, but you’ve likely seen the videos he uploaded—because news sites linked those videos pretty religiously.

The user, named “consumer,” played a small but important role in the YouTube ecosystem. As you may be aware, HBO’s Last Week Tonight has gained a lot of momentum from YouTube. Part of this is a calculated strategy: The network puts the centerpiece John Oliver clip for each episode on YouTube, and that clip inevitably goes viral.

But less heralded was consumer, who uploaded short versions of the other clips from the show on YouTube. The clips, often less than four minutes long, drew millions of views themselves and were shared everywhere online. Sometimes, Oliver’s short videos would be more popular than the much longer clips. Sure, HBO didn’t have control of the clips, but the network seemed indifferent to the channel’s existence for more than four years, allowing it to further Oliver’s place in the conversation.

Of course, it wasn’t technically legal, but it also was a situation where it probably helped the show more than it harmed it, so it was allowed to live for a few years. (Other users have played a similar role in the past, such as onetime Mediaite and Independent Journal Review editor Jon Nicosia, who built his early career around his talented curation of the day’s clips on his NewsPolitics channel on YouTube.)

This week, however, the channel was shut down in short, dramatic order, on a permanent basis, after a single copyright claimant nailed consumer’s channel three times in a single evening, leading to a permanent ban. The unnamed user, who suggested that he had an unspoken “bespoke agreement” with the network, said he likely would not fight the move in a Patreon post:

I could probably contact HBO and ask them to undo this in the name of fairness. However, this comes at a stage in my life when I am having less and less time for my channel, and I have recently only done the John Oliver uploads on Sunday nights, which has become a habit for me over the years. And that is precisely what I could not continue doing even if my channel was alive.

This is a weird situation, and not one unlike the situation that led to YouTube’s initial success. In the first two years of the website’s existence, a large part of the reason the video platform gained momentum was as a result of The Daily Show, Oliver’s old stomping grounds, which had clips that worked particularly well as viral videos.

Despite the fact that the clips helped make its properties more popular, Viacom was steamed, and sued YouTube for a billion dollars not long after Google purchased the company. The lawsuit, which was long running, ultimately ended up helping YouTube become a more sustainable platform, as Google made technology that allowed content owners to remove content they didn’t want on the website, and court rulings generally supported YouTube.

By the end of 2014, a billion-dollar lawsuit looked closer to a rounding error to YouTube, but the case was ultimately settled, with no money changing hands. It was clear that, even with the large amount of piracy happening on its platform, that the platform gave TV networks a symbiotic relationship of sorts. Cooler heads prevailed.

Those cooler heads have benefited users like consumer, it’s benefited hosts like John Oliver, and it’s made the internet a little bit better as a whole, even if it’s not to the letter of copyright law. HBO is within its rights to remove the content consumer uploaded, but in the wake of the other stuff getting banned on YouTube today, you sort of have to wonder why they bothered.

To consumer, nice job doing yeoman’s work for the internet’s cultural ecosystem as long as you were able. It was thankless, and it made the cultural conversation just a little bit better.

Ernie Smith

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Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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