YouTube seems to have adopted Google’s talent for slipping in quirky new ad placement algorithms with barely a note on the fridge about what’s going on. In my job with an online competitive intelligence (SpyFu) company, I often hear about the sudden changes on the Google side. Since I’m usually the one at the company creating and putting content on YouTube, it’s usually me who finds the changes on the video end. This is a recent discovery I made when YouTube placed an ad on one of our new internal company videos, without permission.

SpyYouTube Put Ads On Your Video Content Without Permission?

A couple of weeks ago, the SpyFu team hit Las Vegas for PubCon and added Indoor Skydiving to their adventures. The skydiving company caught their “jumps” on video (complete with Alien Ant Farm’s “Smooth Criminal” playing in the background) and gave us a copy that we could cut up and put online. Since these were just internal videos, I decided to leave the song in there when I cut it up. I uploaded the first video to YouTube, and changed its privacy settings to “Unlisted.”

I’ve done this process hundreds of times before, but this time, something was different. There was an advertisement on my video.

I thought that was weird, we’ve never allowed general ads on our videos. Also, YouTube has only requested to include ads on a handful our most popular videos, not new unlisted ones with only 3 views. Did YouTube just start automatically putting ads on all of our new content, without permission? I was about to rage.

Instead, I decided to experiment. I uploaded the same video to one of my personal channels, which has no public content, no subscribers, hardly any views. An ad popped up on that one too! I had a theory, and uploaded the same video, with the audio dropped out. The ad was gone.

Alien Ant Farm was the reason for the ad, however the ad itself, was not music related. It was for a local car dealership, and then tax software.

These were ads targeted towards me, automatically placed on the video because of the copyrighted song.

Now, using copyrighted music in a video is rarely a best practice, especially a company video. If your video has been identified with a copyrighted song that you don’t own the rights to, the YouTube/Record Company overlords have complete control whether your video gets ripped of the web, and they often do this right at the height of the video’s popularity.

They clearly have good music identification software if they’re able to identify the Alien Ant Farm song upon upload. Supposedly a video with ANY copyrighted song could fall victim to this automatic ad placement… right?

Some Informal Testing

I wanted to test the threshold of this, so I started adding different songs underneath the same video.

• An album version of a reasonably popular song – Ad was placed

• An album version of a cover of the the same song (not by the original artist, but still sold on Amazon) – No Ad

• An in-home cover of the same song – No Ad

• A live performance of the another popular song by the same band – No Ad

• An obscure, but copyrighted, song from a video game title – No Ad

Only the album recording of the reasonably popular copyrighted song was recognizable enough to have an ad was placed on it. The rest were ignored.

So it seems that no, not every copyrighted song will be automatically recognized, and thus will not be pinned with an ad. It’s probably hit and miss on how popular a song has to be in order for the recognition software to correctly identify it. However, even if the software doesn’t recognize it right away, that doesn’t mean it won’t escape the detection of human ears at some point and be put through the same treatment.

This is good information to have, but it still leaves the question, why would a recognizable song have an ad attached to it in the first place? And where is the money flowing?

Let me back up a little. First, if a YouTube video of yours (or better, your entire channel) becomes popular you can choose to “Monetize” your videos. People who choose to do this, basically choose to allow YouTube to put Google ads on their video, and thus get paid for the views and clicks off of those ads.

The key here is that you have a choice to allow this or not. For a company channel, monetizing is definitely not a best practice. The little money you might make from the Google ads are not worth having your message interrupted by someone else’s ad.

Second, when the song is identified as “purchasable” they automatically insert links on the video page so anyone can quickly buy the song from iTunes or Amazon Mp3. These links make sense: if you hear a song you like on a video, you can download it right there.

In my Alien Ant Farm scenario, they included those links, but they also included an ad on the video itself.

A YouTube Toll For Using Copyrighted Music?

Something to keep in mind, I will not make money off of either of these. My channel has not been monetized and I will not see a dime from the views and clicks. It seems as though this ad is acting more like a toll, automatically enforced by YouTube, the forced cost of using intellectual property.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that this is a bad thing, but it makes me wonder who is making money off this ad? Obviously, if someone purchases the song from iTunes or Amazon, that’s more cut and dry, but if someone clicks on the ad for the car dealership, who makes the money off that click? Is it the record company, the artist, or YouTube?

Maybe it’s not a toll from Google or YouTube. It’s a toll against them: record companies forcing YouTube to place ads on videos that have been identified with copyrighted music and then linking these ads to the record companies’ Adsense accounts, thus gaining immediate revenue from the views and clicks.

I don’t have an answer. But I think the experiment itself was enlightening. I don’t know how I feel about YouTube being able to put ads on my content without permission; it doesn’t feel like they should be allowed that much power. Of course the catch is: if you complain about it, you’re simply reporting your own copyright infringement.

If you want to avoid this hassle, there are several quality stock music sites out there where you can buy good music, and their licensing, for cheap ($40 or so.) But if you DO choose to use a popular song, even one from 10 years ago, at the very least expect the viewer’s engagement to be broken by the visuals of Used Ford SUVs… at least for a moment.

I never really liked Alien Ant Farm anyway.