This guide is about the thing that makes copy-pasting stuff from the internet difficult, known as copyright. I called this guide the “fuck copyright” guide because of the immense frustrations that build up trying to deal with it.
I'm not a lawyer, so I can't actually give you legal advice.
I’ve just had several painful experiences over the past 10 years or so.
So here’s some rules of thumb when dealing with copyright:
Rule 1: Assume everything is copyrighted.
The idea behind copyright is that someone did some creative work, and therefore gets to own it. This of course applies to movies and music, but also all other kinds of creativity. For example books, pictures, drawings, viral videos, Reddit posts, and yes, video games. All of these things are protected by copyright, and in order to legally use them, you must ask the copyright holder for permission.
There are a few exceptions to this. For one, not everything actually is copyrighted anymore. Copyright eventually expires, typically 70 years after the author (=the person who made the thing) died. So as of 2020, you can use works if the author of the work died in 1949 or earlier, usually. For comparison, the Lumiére brothers (who can be regarded as the inventors of cinema and by extension, the entire medium of motion pictures/movies) only died in 1948 and 1954, respectively. Some countries have longer protection terms than that, some have shorter ones, and the USA especially has an unholy mess of 60 different conditions. For example, works made by the US government are never copyrighted.
Though do note that anyone fumbling about with these old things automatically gets their own copyright on their adaptation. So you can’t just take a sound recording of a Bach song that was recorded recently for example. While Bach’s composition is in the public domain and not copyrighted anymore, the recording is still very much protected.
You probably won’t find too much useful material in the “copyright expired” category outside of maybe NASA documents if you’re a spaceflight nerd, and fairy tales. Or why do you think Disney made so many cartoon adaptations of fairy tales?
For copyrighted works, there also are exceptions to the “you must ask for permission” rule, most famously fair use. There’s a lot of myths regarding this one and they all seem to make it this magical solution to all your problems. Which it isn’t. Fair use is very strict and narrow in scope. You can’t just write “no copyright intended” or “this video is fair use” in your description. That doesn’t help you at all. Fair use is defined by four factors, which a judge will try to apply to your content if you use something someone else made.
And that’s precisely where the problem is: You need to go to court for that. And even one court says that your videos are fine, the court higher up can completely revert the decision, as happened to Ray William Johnson, once the most-subscribed YouTuber: He had a series where he was commenting on/reacting to viral videos, and even though the first court ruled 18/19 of his videos to be fair use, the jury in the second court deemed 40/40 videos to be not fair use, forcing Johnson to settle.
Long story short, fair use is a right probably best left not exercised unless you are willing to fight for it. If you even can fight for it, because, oh yeah: Fair use is US-only. Other countries may have similar laws, but those are even narrower (albeit often clearer) than fair use is. Leading us to the second rule of thumb:
Rule 2: Always get permission.
Getting permission from the copyright holder tends to be easier than trying to fit your use of content into the narrow copyright exceptions there are. Sometimes, authors give everyone a permission to use their work in form of a license.
Gamers have it almost the easiest here: Many companies just grant anyone the permission to make videos of their games and even monetize it. For music, there are a lot of “copyright-free” or “royalty-free” sources and labels out there which you can use without too much hassle. And many musicians will happily tell you that you can use their music in your video. Unfortunately, and you’ll be noticing a trend here, it’s more difficult than that:
- The first problem is that it already ambiguous what “you can use this” means. For you, it may sound like permission to use it. But for a musician, it may mean “I won’t strike it down, I just will send a copyright claim and collect all ad money the video is making”. So make sure to clear that up with the copyright holder.
- The second problem is that it’s basically impossible to not own the copyright on the things you make, which allows “copyright-free” material to come with strict requirements on how to use their content, as it is actually still copyrighted. For example, NoCopyrightSounds’ music is copyrighted and has a ruleset which requires attribution and has quite a few content constraints.
- The third problem is that permissions can be revoked, unless they explicitly state otherwise. This is rare to happen unless you really piss the copyright holder off, but just that happened to Pewdiepie; Campo Santo just revoked the license specifically for Pewdiepie for his racist comments.
Aside: Creative Commons licenses
Creative Commons is a set of licenses designed to give some security when using copyrighted content and partially solve the problems listed above. CC0 is the closest you can get to having something actually copyright-free, Creative Commons – Attribution (
CC-by for short) is the safe-to-use version of “you can use it if you credit me”. There are other CC licenses available, but those come with varying degrees of headaches attached, especially on YouTube. For example, “non-commercial”: If you aren’t monetizing the video, it probably isn’t commercial use for you, but since you do upload it to a commercial platform who’s entire business model is to let everyone upload and view things for free, it may be commercial use anyway? Headache material.
So yeah, CC0 and CC-by are absolutely great to use on YouTube (and anywhere else). They are widely recognized, the license cannot be revoked, and even the attribution requirement is fairly flexible.
While you should always provide title, author, source and license as attribution, the license cuts you some slack and says that it’s okay to comply with the requirements “in any reasonable manner based on the medium, means, and context in which You Share the Licensed Material. For example, it may be reasonable to satisfy the conditions by providing a URI or hyperlink to a resource that includes the required information.”
Rule 3: Avoid risks.
Operating on the assumption that you value your channel as a whole more than any single video you upload, I’d say it’s generally not worth it to take risks in this matter. If you violate someone elses copyright in your video in some form, it may be fine for now. It may only get copyright claimed and monetized — but that can change at any time without notice. Any single copyright claim has the potential to turn into a copyright strike over night, and as you probably know, it only takes 3 of those to get your channel terminated forever.
Avoiding risks also means that you should double or triple check that you actually got permission to use the material in question. So here’s some advice for some common pitfalls:
- Authors often give away exclusive rights to their publishers. This means that if a musician is signed with a label, the label probably has exclusive usage rights on their music. The musician therefore cannot give you permission to use their music, you’ll have to ask their label instead.
- Reuploaders sometimes claim things to be under free-to-use licenses when they actually aren’t (“License laundering”). Make sure that it’s actually the original creator who states that their work is under a free license.
- Remixes, mashups and other derivative works often are incorrectly licensed under creative commons licenses. Make sure that you can not just only use the remix, but the work(s) the remix/mashup/… is based upon as well.
- Make sure you know your local laws, not just US copyright law. While the US law is important to how YouTube deals with things, local law is important if you actually end up getting sued. And local law can be quite different to what you’re used to, for example, in France, buildings are copyrighted and there’s no exceptions to take pictures of them (“freedom of panorama”). And while the Eiffel tower is old enough for copyright to have expired, the light installation on it isn’t, so if you’re taking pics of the Eiffel Tower at night, that’s already a copyright violation.
- Don’t believe everything what you read on the internet. I said it before and I’ll say it again, copyright is a bitch and absolutely stupid to understand, so there are a lot of misconceptions around, and I definitely held a lot of those when I was younger, and I don’t know which misconceptions I still carry around with me. So please double-check everything I say as well
One more thing: The EU recently had a copyright reform, which now requires YouTube (and all other platforms that allow user-generated content) to have a license for all content that’s being uploaded to them. This law is going into effect in pretty much exactly a year. We don’t yet know what this entails and whether the entire business model of a UGC platform makes sense after this, but no matter what, as long as you’ve got permission, you can take your works wherever you want.
Overall, don’t fuck with copyright, or it will fuck you. There is a copyright case in Germany (“metal on metal“) about a song which used just TWO SECONDS of a different song, which has been going on since 1999. It has been going all the way up to the European Court of Justice, the German Federal Constitutional Court, and somehow passed through the German Federal Court of Justice four times while doing that, and it still is ongoing. All of that could’ve been prevented by just asking for permission.
If you do need to make use of copyright exceptions, whether that is fair use, freedom of panorama or a right to quote, do ask a lawyer and make sure that you actually understand correctly how these exceptions work. Where to find freely licensed material?
This is a spreadsheet of various sources I found over the years. I tried to only include sources if they
a) are absolutely free, in each case free of cost and also usually also without any sign-ups necessary, and
b) allow the works featured to be used freely, ie without a restriction to a certain platform, so you can take the videos you make with them to whatever platform you’d like.
You can add to the spreadsheet if you want to.
The spreadsheet is licensed CC0, and this guide is licensed CC-by 4.0.