YouTube’s Demonetization Debate: How Smaller YouTubers are Disproportionately Affected
I have been vaguely aware of YouTube’s practice of “demonetization” for some time, that which has something to do with ad revenues. However, it wasn’t until a recent tragedy at YouTube’s headquarters that I began to comprehend emotional and symbolic challenges smaller YouTubers (i.e. creators/owners of small YouTube channels) face because of demonetization. In this blog post, I briefly introduce the YouTube Partner Program (YPP), explore the arguments for and against the recent change in YPP, and argue that intellectual property law should be applied to make monetization available for all content creators.
YPP is a monetization program, which allows YouTube content creators to earn revenue from advertisements. To participate in YPP, a YouTube creator’s channel needs to meet some requirements. In April 2017, the YPP eligibility requirement was 10,000 lifetime views. In January 2018, YouTube announced that the new eligibility requirement is “4,000 hours of watchtime within the past 12 months and 1,000 subscribers.” The change has been considered a stricter criteria than the previous one, and in effect has resulted in demonetization for many smaller YouTubers who were not able to meet the new criteria.
The purported goal of the YPP eligibility requirement is, simply put, quality control. The theory is that viewers would not subscribe to channels that are inactive or to channels with potentially inappropriate videos. However, in light of YouTube star Logan Paul’s continued ability to monetize videos even after a scandal, it is questionable who is benefiting from the new change and whether the change will help YouTube achieve the purported goal of quality control.
There are valid arguments supporting the new criteria, some of which include: YouTube is a private company with its own rules and terms; the change will not affect smaller YouTubers, most whom do not depend on YPP for stable income; the new criteria will motivate serious creators to work harder for ad revenues. In fact, YPP was originally introduced out of YouTube’s fear of losing its stars to its competitors. So it makes sense that its monetization program is catered towards incentivizing and rewarding bigger channels.
Nevertheless, the YouTube platform is increasingly becoming unfriendly to smaller content creators. The recent change in YPP has left many smaller YouTubers feeling alienated, as was the case with the often-inaccurate and unfair implementation of the Content ID technology (which was discussed in my previous blog post). With alternatives almost non-existent, smaller YouTubers are stuck with YouTube; and with YouTube’s ability to unilaterally change its policies with only a short notice, smaller YouTubers are often voiceless and underrepresented, and thus any change in policy would affect them disproportionately.
Giving voice to these smaller YouTubers is no easy task, and intellectual property law currently cannot force YouTube to include them in YPP. Given the dominance of YouTube in hosting community videos, however, I believe that intellectual property law should be developed and applied to open up the monetization program to any content creator on YouTube, thereby preventing smaller YouTubers from being affected disproportionately. As long as a content creator’s videos are not unlawful, and as long as there are companies that are willing to advertise on his or her channel, then the option to monetize should be available to all, because, ultimately, the market would determine whether or not a content creator’s efforts will be rewarded. The mere fact that the size of a channel is small is not a good proxy for the quality of the channel, and thus should not present a barrier to monetization.
One thing is clear from the demonetization debate: smaller YouTubers are disproportionately affected by the change in YPP. In the midst of its growing pains, YouTube should nevertheless strive to set clear and transparent guidelines that are proven to apply equally across the entire YouTube community and are guaranteed to result in the desired outcome, namely a safer community. Notwithstanding the potential application of intellectual property law on its monetization policy, YouTube must not forget to support smaller but independent creators, because that’s what has set YouTube apart from Disney, Netflix, cable networks, or any other competitors.
 Additional Changes to the YouTube Partner Program (YPP) to Better Protect Creators, YouTube, https://youtube-creators.googleblog.com/2018/01/additional-changes-to-youtube-partner.html (last visited April 16, 2018) (“A big part of that effort will be strengthening our requirements for monetization so spammers, impersonators, and other bad actors can’t hurt our ecosystem or take advantage of you, while continuing to reward those who make our platform great.”).
Joshua S. Kim is a J.D. candidate, 2019, at NYU School of Law.