Facebook Needs To Clean Up Before It Starts Monetising Videos

Image via iStock, edit by Gizmodo

Opinion: A recent report let on that Facebook intends to begin monetising videos via 'mid-roll', short video ads that cut in after watching 20 seconds of a video. The revenue from these ads would be split with the creator through a system similar to YouTube's - which is hugely problematic when many of Facebook's most watched videos don't actually belong to the people who uploaded them.

The new development was first reported by Recode, citing anonymous "industry sources", though the core of the news is not new. Facebook has been talking about monetising videos for some time and it's only become more likely since last year, when it aggressively renewed its focus on video.

This recentring wasn't without its problems, of course. Facebook first came under fire for over-representing video view time to advertisers, potentially counting many 'false positives' when videos autoplayed as users scrolled through their feeds. A later study revealed that video ads on Facebook are seen for a far shorter time than video ads on YouTube and other competitors.

But there's one big issue with Facebook video that not many have even touched on.

Late last year a video popped up as I scrolled through my Facebook feed, not an uncommon occurrence since the algorithm changed to preference them. The thumbnail showed a freeze-frame from Shrek, the description merely said "hey now". Expecting some kind of Shrek-related joke I clicked, only to see the Dreamworks logo pre-roll play through to the beginning of the movie and, unbelievably, the entire rest of the film. Right there on Facebook.

While this is one of the most blatant examples of copyright infringement I've seen, in late 2015 it was revealed that 725 of the 1000 most viewed videos on Facebook were stolen.

Granted Dreamworks can probably afford to lose a couple thousand views on a 16 year old film, but unfortunately it's not just Hollywood movies that fall victim to these thefts. The problem of so-called 'freebooting' goes much deeper, and is especially harmful to smaller independent creators who rely on YouTube revenue to get by. Often videos that get a few thousand views on YouTube will go on to receive tens of millions when ripped and reuploaded by Facebook viral 'celebrities' and aggregate meme pages - almost always without any form of credit, of course.

One such viral video you're probably familiar with is this Disney Smashmouth montage uploaded by a page called "BIG CAT" late last year with the description "whoever made this thank you":

It quickly racked up almost 600,000 shares and a staggering 30 million views. Meanwhile, the person who actually "made this", James Covenant, was left with only 870,000 views on his original video. That figure is nothing to sniff at of course, but the numbers are completely dwarfed by the stolen Facebook video. The YouTube comments all reflect a similar kind of frustration at the high-profile Facebook freebooters: "I'm gonna have to resort to watermarks in my future videos", says the top comment from James himself, while others are similarly angry: "Facebook videos are a joke; I wanted to link this and had a feeling the real creator was out there somewhere."

Of course, BIG CAT wasn't the only one to have ripped off James' video. If you search "Smashmouth Disney" on Facebook you'll come up with hundreds of copies of the same video, some with 30 views, others with 3 million. Some go as far as half-heartedly crediting James by name, while others just use the view-hungry video vehicle to direct people to their own Instagram or Snapchat, or even to a store where they sell their own merchandise.

It's difficult to report a post for copyright infringement on Facebook, a process that feels quite deliberately convoluted. You have to click through 10 different screens just to get to the copyright report form, many of which are repeated questions and deliberately obfuscated links. All this brings you to a form which then promises to share details such as your name and email address with the page that you are in the process of attempting to report. Even if you have the patience to go through this process, trying to track down all instances of infringement with Facebook's sometimes handy but ultimately unreliable Graph Search is next to impossible.

Disney Characters Sing "All Star" by Smash Mouth wasn't the first victim of this social culture, and it certainly won't be the last. A quick search for the freebooter caption of choice "who made this?" on Facebook reveals just how many videos are stolen and re-uploaded with a the endearing phrase. The uploaders seem to long to know who the absolute genius behind said video is, while simultaneously siphoning off all of the original creators' views.

Needless to say, when people put time and effort into creating videos that are inevitably going to get stolen, they're not happy about it.

"There's really nothing you can do to stop people re-uploading stuff," Elliot from Deerstalker Pictures told Gizmodo. "When our stuff gets stolen our best option is to just kick up a stink in the comments section and hijack the post." Deerstalker Pictures has also posted about this phenomenon publicly, expressing the same frustration with the lack of options Facebook provides for creators:

Of course, it's worth a mention that Facebook has recently introduced a copyright management system similar to YouTube's Content ID. It's called Rights Manager, and is available to creators on an application-only basis. How strict the approval process is is not clear, as Facebook does not clarify beyond "we are accepting partners into Rights Manager on the basis of their needs."

One creator who has been accepted as a partner, Nick Acott of Sneaky Zebra, says that the content protection is "pretty solid", but the process of submitting videos to the program can be tedious. Uploading new videos requires checking options in a separate "Rights Manager" tab, while getting old videos protected requires uploading and maintaining an unpublished reference library of your content.

Deerstalker Pictures, who haven't applied for Rights Manager, still question whether it would be worth the time. "You have to upload your own video for it to match against others, but most of the freebooted videos have those black bars at the top and bottom with "WHO DID THIS ? ? ?" written on it."

The nature of the system also forces creators to be active on Facebook if they want to protect their views over on YouTube. Interestingly Rights Manager has no ability to protect images, even though images can be just as important to content creators on Facebook as videos are and implementation would be far easier than copyright protection on video content.Early vulnerabilities also wreaked havoc to the system and those who used it, though those bugs have since been fixed.

Facebook hasn't yet shown any inclination towards removing or banning particular pages that are known to be serial offenders, though it has allegedly cracked down on small musicians uploading cover versions on the site.

While freebooting remains a huge thorn in the side of Youtube's creators, causing them to miss out on hundreds of thousands, even millions of potential views, monetisation could make this an even bigger problem. Many of the offenders are Facebook power users with huge follower counts, verified badges and little regard for copyright law. Are there adequate restrictions in place to stop them from monetising other people's videos, or even using Rights Manager against the actual creators?

Direct monetisation has long been a concern of video creators and critics of freebooting. Back in 2015, Business Insider spoke to viral video creator Jay Lichtenberger, often a victim of freebooting. While Rights Manager had not yet been implemented at the time, Lichtenberger suggested that he would consider filing a class-action lawsuit if freebooters were allowed to directly monetise content they did not own.

This problem, like many others, show that Facebook caters more to business owners than to its own content creators. In fact, content creators on Facebook are constantly pushed to 'promote their businesses', betraying a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn't bode well for Facebook as a platform for original content.

Unlike YouTube and to a lesser extent Instagram welcomed, embraced and supported the content creators that gave their platforms life, Facebook continues to demand money from its creators so just a fraction of their fans will be able to actually view the post. Yet it still puts in only the bare minimum of effort to protect creators' copyrights.

Beyond this Facebook has always tended to partner with big media corporations when testing video monetisation in the past, failing to seek the opinions or advice of independent creators whose videos nevertheless rack up millions of views on the site.

"I don’t want to bad-mouth Facebook, but it’s harder to be a successful content creator on Facebook." SketchShe's Shae-Lee Shackleford told Forbes late last year. "I’ve seen a big shift in views and engagement. Now, only a small percentage of our fans who like our page see our videos organically in our feed. Facebook demands payment to 'boost' videos, which is wrong and unfair."

Even though Rights Manager has been introduced, it's still incredibly common to stumble across stolen content on Facebook. Almost all the examples in this story occurred after the introduction of the surprisingly hard-to-track-down copyright manager, after all.

Freebooting isn't going anywhere fast, and I doubt it will without some effort on Facebook's part. So here's a message to Facebook: please clean up your stolen content and known freebooters before you try to make even more money off your content creators.

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