In case you had any doubt how YouTube feels about artists, the company made its views clear in November with a sneaky alteration to how it monetizes videos. If you were among those who always thought that YouTube feels nothing for artists, this news proved you were 100% correct!
“Starting today we’ll begin slowly rolling out ads on a limited number of videos from channels not in [the YouTube Partner Program],” YouTube announced in a blog post summarizing a recent raft of changes to its terms of service. “This means as a creator that’s not in YPP, you may see ads on some of your videos.”
Here is what this means: A creator who is interested in sharing ad revenue with YouTube must be enrolled in the YouTube Partner Program (YPP). It used to be the case that if you were a creator who wanted to keep your videos free of ads on the site, you could simply not enroll in YPP. Well, not anymore! Now, YouTube has decreed that it can run ads on all videos – however, if “you’re not currently in YPP,” the post continued, “you won’t receive a share of the revenue from these ads”.
Unsurprisingly, this brazen cash grab sent shockwaves through the creative community. One YouTuber described the change as the greediest move he’d ever seen, noting that “[i]f you’re a small channel, struggling to grow and haven’t yet gotten monetization, YouTube will run ads now and take 100% of the profit from your work.”
So, why not just join the YouTube Partner Program and start collecting that sweet, sweet ad cash? Easier said than done.
To qualify for YPP, your videos must have attracted 4,000 hours of viewing and 1,000 subscribers in the prior 12 months. YouTube bragged recently that the number of members who reached this elite threshold doubled in 2020 – but they didn’t actually disclose what that number is. That’s probably because all evidence points to it being pretty tiny.
Last year, the social media data firm Social Blade counted more than 37 million total YouTube channels with at least five subscribers or more. Twenty million of them had between 10 and 100 subscribers, and 12 million had between 100 and 1,000 subscribers – which means that, in the best-case scenario, tens of millions of YouTube channels fail to meet the 1,000-subscriber threshold required to enroll in YPP. That’s tens of millions of channels whom YouTube has now given itself blanket permission to profit from without paying them a penny.
Of course, YouTube is a private company. It has every right to monetize whatever lawful content it wants to on its platform. But YouTube also likes to portray itself as a creator-friendly platform that pays content creators fairly (never mind the fact that it pays between just three-tenths and one-half of one cent per video view and that some of its most popular channels may still be generating less than $17,000 per year) – and this move is anything but that. On paper, YouTube has less incentive than ever to bring more channels into its revenue-sharing partner program. Why accept more members into YPP when it can now monetize any video it wants to, from the tens of millions of channels outside of the program, and keep 100% of the money?
But the ramifications this monetization change could have for creator livelihoods is only the beginning of why it is troubling.
YPP exists in the first place because YouTube had a big problem. It was monetizing horrible videos involving hate speech, extremism, violence, and other harms. It was not only profiting from some of the most toxic content imaginable but pairing some of its most prized advertisers with said content. By YouTube’s own admission, YPP’s stringent eligibility requirements are a way of “strengthening our requirements for monetization so spammers, impersonators, and other bad actors can’t hurt our ecosystem or take advantage of [users], while continuing to reward those who make our platform great.” Noble words that, in retrospect, ring completely hollow. Now that YouTube has codified its ability to monetize any video, whether it’s in the program or not, how is it going to avoid backsliding, running ads against sketchy and dangerous content?
We might know the answer to that question if YouTube offered any transparency whatsoever about this latest decision – but as per its custom, the details of the monetization update are incredibly vague and create many more questions than answers. How is YouTube determining which non-YPP videos get monetized while excluding potentially harmful videos? What is the engine of the moderation process for non-YPP videos? Humans? AI? The update says a “limited number” of non-YPP videos are being monetized – but what is a “limited number” when we’re talking billions of hours of content? Millions of videos being monetized without permission? Tens of millions?
Then again, at least YouTube has provided some kind of warning here. Sure, it is tucked deeply away in a dusty corner of the site’s terms of service – but it is there, clearly signaling to any potential uploader who happens to stumble across it that YouTube may secretly monetize their video and pay them nothing.
Meanwhile, there is a whole other category of creatives who see their works monetized on YouTube all the time without any fair warning: victims of piracy, ranging from filmmakers to musicians to podcast hosts and beyond.
From Content ID to the Content Verification Program, YouTube has the tools to help these creatives find and take down pirated versions of their works. These offerings even give creatives the ability, if they so choose, to share in any revenues generated rather than taking the pirated versions down. But YouTube arbitrarily withholds such tools from most creatives, leaving them to spend endless hours scouring the platform’s ocean of content to find pirated copies of their works, then filling out cumbersome takedown forms to ask for each individual instance of infringement removed… until, of course, the next person posts a pirated copy, and then the process starts all over again.
If YouTube really wanted to “reward those who make our platform great,” it would start by expanding access to its content protection tools and empowering creatives to better protect their own copyrighted works on the site. Then again, YouTube’s own executives have called the platform a “pirate site.” Profiting from other people’s works without permission is in its DNA.