Copyright: YouTube Policy

Copyright: YouTube Policy

Copyright is a powerful legal concept. It provides creators valuable protection and ownership rights over their endeavours. However, it can sometimes bite you if you don’t know the law or someone takes advantage of YouTube’s strict copyright claim system.

This tutorial intends to outline what copyright is, how you can protect your own works and guidelines on how to use other creators content in your own projects.

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Legal Copyright; Layman Edition

In simple terms, copyright is ownership over a creative work. By default (in most countries) copyright will go to the creator of said work unless otherwise agreed (if a creator signs a contract with another entity over ownership rights), this then usually extends to 50 years after the creator's death and it can be extended by whoever ownership then defaulted to (such as relatives).

What this means, is that no-one can copy a piece of copyrighted work without the creator's permission.

However, certain countries differ from this definition in small ways. Some countries extend after-death ownership to 70 years, others provide clauses allowing the use of copyright work in certain circumstances (see ‘Fair Use’) and some have laws regarding who owns the copyright of government work (e.g Crown Copyright in the UK).

Public Domain

Public Domain basically means the work is owned by the public, it can be used by everyone and anyone. As we discussed earlier, copyright can run out 50 years after the author's death if copyright is not renewed by the copyright holder (usually a close relative). If this does not happen, then the copyright dissolves and the work becomes ‘Public Domain’. Certain copyright licenses can make work immediately available in the public domain, such as CC public domain (see ‘Creative Commons and GNU’)


A subsection of copyright law is the use of Trademarks. Essentially, a Trademark can cover name, symbol, design, logo, branding etc. It’s a way for customers to distinguish your organisation/brand from others within your sector.

These can be registered or unregistered, in most countries you are not required to register your trademark. Simply using the name for a period of time provides your protection within the law. Legally you can use the ™ symbol beside your own trademarks without registering, however you can only use the ® symbol next to a registered trademark.

Earlier in this section, I mentioned ‘within your sector’, this is a very important distinction. If you have a registered or unregistered trademark, it only works within the family of products or services you are providing. An example of this would be the brand BMW, if you google ‘BMW Shipping’ you’ll see a result come up for a shipping company within southampton. Legally they can get away with this because they are not dealing in cars, shipping is a separate service/industry.

Fair Use

Fair use is a defense in relation to copyright law, meaning that a small amount of copyrighted work can be used for discussion, critique or parody. As popular works will want to be talked about, this allows creators (such as YouTubers, critics etc) to use samples of copyrighted work within their own.
My recommendation is to only use 3-5 second clips of other media, or to use the video without the audio. But this is my personal preference and not the rule.

The concept of fair use is fluid and each court case is open to interpretation by jury and judge mostly, so there aren’t any concrete definitions over what is and is not fair use.

As long as you are reasonable with your usage, you should be fine. However you should be aware that by using someone’s work in your own, you can be take to court regardless of the existence of fair use. This is because fair use is a defense to be used in court/settlements and not a right.

Some things worth bearing in mind is that RWJ of =3 fame recently had a rule where a number of his videos considered not fair use in court in an ongoing case (see bottom of article for link to more details).

Also note in another legal battle, Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films, sampling of a 2 second guitar chord was found to be copyright infringement

Creative Commons and GNU

Creative commons are a collection of copyright licenses that open up the use of works to the public, there are several licenses and each can come with or without their own conditions. The most free of these is CC public domain, which has no caveats or conditions to it (see public domain). The most common (and my personal favourite) is CC Attribution, which allows use of anothers work as long as you attribute the original author (mention them in the credits/description).

There are other licenses similar to CC, a prominent one is GNU or GPL (General Public License) which is a software license allowing users free use, modification and distribution rights over a piece of software.

What you can’t do (and how it applies to YouTube)

When it comes to copyright law, the thing you should never do is infringe upon someone's copyright. Be it by stealing someone's work or violating a license such as CC or any found in stock media websites.

If you do, this will allow the owner of the copyrighted material to issue a DMCA takedown request (in the US) or take you to court in some cases.
In terms of how this applies to YouTube, the website has several provisions in place to prevent users from violating copyright laws. The first of these is Content ID, which scans videos and attempts to match them to a database full of audio. If there is a match, you will get a copyright flag on the video, this can potentially lead to further ramifications on your channel such as copyright strikes.

YouTube also has several forms where you can register copyright or trademark violations yourself. The effects of which can lead to revenue being given to the copyright holder on the video, to having the video hidden in certain countries or removed altogether. This can also gives strikes to the offending channel.

YouTube provides an excellent set of web pages documentation their copyright procedures and what strikes mean here -

It’s worth taking the time to read through this, as strikes can impact your channel negatively by limiting your access to certain features. This gets worse the more you accumulate and can end in your channel being removed.

H3H3 and Copyright Claims

Recently YouTube has been under fire over their automated system being a little too harsh on creators. YouTube doesn’t want to suffer legal ramifications so they tend to be a little overzealous in their policy here.

Recently (2017) a channel called H3H3 went through a court battle over the definition of ‘fair use’ and whether their content is covered by the clause, setting a legal precedent for future trials and could shape the way that fair use rulings are decided in the future. On August 23rd, 2017, H3H3 won, proving incredibly valuable to the YouTube community and content creators in general.

As stated in their follow-up video, the judge made a distinction between their content and reaction videos. Stating that their content added commentary to the original piece, rather than acting as a "viewing party" for the original content.


Copyright is a powerful tool designed to protect creators and their works. However, you need to make sure that in creating works, that you yourself are not infringing upon another person's copyright. Take the time to become familiar with the law if your content uses any part of another's work, be it video games footage, film trailers, article snapshots or even music.

The laws are different for each country, so make sure you are familiar with yours before proceeding.

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