Ah, the Internet. Has there ever been a sword with two edges quite so long and sharp? On one hand, your funny YouTube videos can turn into an online media empire with millions of viewers. On the other, a single misstep can stir up an irate mob with the power to shout you down from your pedestal.
That’s the experience currently being endured by the Fine Brothers, the duo responsible for those widely shared reaction videos–kids reacting to [insert classic cultural phenomenon], for example. The format is wildly popular, generating tons of views for the Fine Brothers and plenty of spin-off videos, including from the Ellen Degeneres show. In an effort to get more control over the “so-and-so reacts” video format, the Fine Brothers recently announced a licensing and revenue-sharing program for anybody who wants to produce such videos. Of course, one man’s licensing scheme is another man’s copyright land grab.
The Internet is not happy.
A search for “Fine Bros” on Reddit yields a list of threads peppered with references to censorship, “a copyright nightmare,” and, uh, more than a few swastikas. The controversy has, quite naturally, yielded a number of reaction videos showing other YouTube personalities picking apart the Fine Brothers’ proposal, some more delicately than others.
So what’s the big deal? In their own defense, the Fine Brothers have said that the idea they proposed is simply a way for third parties to use the company’s “Reacts” branding, format, and distribution resources to co-publish videos. But to many, the move smacks of an attempt to trademark and gain control over a concept that the Fine Brothers did not invent–people have been reacting to things on the Internet for quite a while now. And in online media communities like YouTube, copyright and idea ownership is a sensitive subject. On a site where creators are routinely targeted with copyright takedown notices (in many cases, unjustifiably), a move like this is easily seen as a pretext to zap videos that the Fine Brothers deem too similar to their successful video series. The duo have denied that this is their intention.
But how similar is too similar? That question is a big part of what sparked the controversy in the first place. Initially, the Fine Brothers weren’t entirely clear about what elements of their series were considered their intellectual property, although as many have pointed out, the duo did apply for a trademark on the word “reacts” (among other relevant phrases) last year.
The backlash has put the Fine Brothers in PR crisis mode, putting out statements on Facebook and Reddit and posting this defensive, visibly agitated explanation video on YouTube.
In a Reddit thread, the Fine Brothers clarified that they were not attempting to copyright the reaction video concept (adding that that would be impossible), saying that they are simply “licensing our specific shows and their structural elements,” which includes things like the title and graphical components. Members of the Reddit community, never tolerant of what they view as intellectual property overreach, remain unimpressed. Meanwhile, the duo has lost over 170,000 subscribers on YouTube, according to the BBC.