What are you authorizing when you allow YouTube to monetize your songs?

Right after Google bought YouTube, Google lawyer Zahavah Levine spoke on a panel at the Beverly Hills Bar Association during which she described the “whack a mole” aspect of how infringing content is posted, reposted, and reposted again on YouTube–unless you want to make a deal with YouTube.  (I happened to be speaking at the OECD’s digital future conference right before Google bought YouTube and got the distinct impression that the concept of UGC as a way to both steal copyrights and add another of the 1,000 cuts to the industry litigation budget sprang from the depths of the imagination of one Fred Von Lohman and one Terry Fisher–meaning this was all part of Google’s acquisition strategy–but that’s another story.)

So what exactly are you agreeing to as a songwriter when you agree to relax and enjoy it as it sounded like Ms. Levine suggested?  What are you authorizing when you agree to “monetize” your “content” on YouTube?  By the look of it, far more than you bargained for!  (Or didn’t bargain for)

Take this example of a YouTube ad for “health-seller.com”.  And by the way–I don’t mean pre-roll ads for other products on this particular video, I mean the video is itself an advertisement.  Against which other ads are sold.  What is it an ad for?  “Buy Pills Online Without Prescription”.  And what kind of pills?  Cialis, Arcoxia, Levitra, Cardizem (heart relaxer), Casodex (prostate cancer treatment), Cloud9 Human Growth Hormone, Cytoxan (cancer treatment), and of course more different species of Viagra than Carter has…ah…pills.

Google, as MTP readers will recall, is no stranger to the world of no-prescription pharmacies–the company’s senior management team (apparently going up to Larry Page and Eric Schmidt) were nearly indicted in a multiyear sting operation for which it paid $500,000,000 of the stockholders’ money.  So it’s not like they don’t know what they are doing when they allow these pill pusher ads onto YouTube.  In fact, this type of YouTube video may themselves violate the Google Nonprosecution Agreement that allowed them to get out of jail free (to the executives involved). OPM, man.

And guess what is being advertised next to the drugs?

Chrome Drugs

Yes, Google Chrome.  You don’t suppose that YouTube serves Chrome ads based on the keyword “tablet” do you?

So this is how we know that the “no prescription” drug ad is “monetized”.  How is this relevant to songwriters?  I’d suggest that it’s yet another version of whack a mole, Google’s favorite game that Ms. Levine, Mr. Von Lohman and Professor Fisher foreshadowed way back when.

Listen to the music bed of the video:

Sound familiar?  Yes, it’s the Theme from House–it’s actually a song by Massive Attack called “Teardrop,” but these days everyone knows it from its very close identification with the House television show.

When music is “licensed” on YouTube its usually in two licensing buckets–user generated content and music videos.  (Unless of course it’s in the YouTube “partner” multichannel networks, in which case it’s not licensed at all the vast majority of the time.  Don’t forget that YouTube describes these MCNs as “partners”.  We’ll come back to that in another post.)

Music is not licensed for use as commercials, particularly not commercials for illegal pharmacies (that run for 4:22).  Any guesses for how much a commercial use of “Teardrop” would set you back?  If the writers even agreed to license it for a drug commercial?

But what has probably happened in the case of the drug advertisement on YouTube is that the song was authorized for “monetization” but YouTube failed to tell anyone that the song was being used in the bed of a commercial made for YouTube.  A drug commercial.  In other words, they can tell you that the song is being used, they just can’t tell you what for.

This is pretty clearly the exact conduct that is prohibited by Google’s nonprosecution agreement as YouTube becomes the leading music source of choice for kids.  You know–the kids that Health and Human Services Secretary Joseph Califano was concerned about when he wrote to Eric Schmidt in 2008 to implore Schmidt to stop the drug ads.  That Schmidt ignored.

So when you “monetize” a song on YouTube, just remember that you are giving up control of where your song appears because YouTube’s ContentID will not block these ads and no human will either.  And as we know from the Google sting that resulted in the $500,000,000 fine to keep its executives out of jail, Google will actually look for ways to get around its own filters.

How hard is it to automatically flag anything with the line “buy pills online without prescription” on a site largely devoted to kids?  Is that so very hard to figure out?

As Ms. Levine indicated back in 2006, there’s nothing you can do to actually stop Google from promoting dope on YouTube.  Not even fine them $500,000,000.  Maybe some day there will be a government that won’t let them buy their way out of jail, because that’s probably what it’s going to take to get their attention.

But until then–what YouTube will likely say is that by deciding to monetize your music, you have authorized using it in the bed of an ad pushing drugs to kids and desperate people, even addicts.  And they’ll be all happy and smug about that.

It’s time to start demanding far greater accountability from Google.  If they’re going to be using your music whether you like it or not, you should at least have the same control over the “new boss” that you would have over the “old boss.”  And it would be a cold day in hell that the old boss ever approved a sync for an ad for an illegal pharmacy.