YouTube has long had to battle complaints and lawsuits - most often from record labels and film studios - that the video-sharing site is awash in copyright infringements. YouTube does take measures to pull content when an infringement claim is made, and it has had a longstanding policy to ban users who repeatedly post videos that violate copyright.
But in YouTube's words, "copyright law can be complicated," and so rather than just banning without recourse or reform, the service has redesigned its copyright help center and made a few changes to its policy.
Now, if you post a video that violates copyright, you get sent to YouTube Copyright School, which involves watching a Happy Tree Friends video and passing a quiz. Doing so will expunge the infraction from your record (otherwise, it's three strikes and you're banned for life).
For those unfamiliar with Happy Tree Friends, these adorable cartoon animals have their own series which involves a lot of gibberish and mayhem. The short episodes (yes, you can find them on YouTube) often end violently. Really violently. Now I'm a huge fan of cartoon violence, don't get me wrong. And I can immediately see the appeal of using these characters to appeal to a certain demographic that may well be apt to upload infringing material.
The Happy Tree Friends video does take a quick, four-minute stab at explaining how copyright law - and YouTube's policies - work, but I'm just not convinced that Copyright School is the smartest educational tool.
The video starts with a pretty clear explanation of how copyright works. (And it helps that this time, the Happy Tree Friends have narration and not just gibberish.) But when the video gets to the issues that most people probably do have questions about - fair use and mashups - the narration runs into high speed, brushing over legalese like it's a joke. "Contact a copyright attorney" if you have questions or doubts about the legality of a piece of content, the video suggests.
Well that's not helpful. Here's another cartoon that I think explains things better (ironically, yes, posted without the author's permission):
Now sure, some of the changes that YouTube announced today are an improvement with how it deals with copyright issues. It's good to move away from a one-size-fits-all punishment policy and give users the ability to erase blemishes they might have on their permanent record.
While it's good to see a proactive approach in terms of educating users about copyright, it's a shame that YouTube glosses over the legalities of some of the most interesting content online - mashups - and some of our most important rights as creatives and educators - fair use.