How Kids YouTube Star Blippi Used Copyright Law to Hide His Harlem Shake Poop Video

Someone claiming to represent Blippi filed DMCA copyright takedown requests to Google in order to get an embarrassing viral video hidden.

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Feb 15 2019, 7:33pm

Image: Blippi/YouTube

Wednesday night, BuzzFeed News published a blockbuster investigative report about Stevin John, the children’s YouTuber better known as “Blippi.” In 2013 Blippi, who has 3.6 million followers, once starred in a viral Harlem Shake meme video in which he pooped on his naked friend’s butt. In advance of BuzzFeed’s story, Blippi went to extreme lengths to get it off the internet.

There’s an adage: The internet never forgets. And yet, the internet forgets so much, which is why groups like The Internet Archive, Archive Team, and individual archivists are so important. The internet’s collective memory is fragile for lots of reasons. Internet companies go out of business and take down their websites, physical media erodes or becomes obsolete, file formats stop getting supported, domain names expire and web hosting subscriptions are canceled.

And certain internet artifacts can be actively cleaned up and legally protected, which is how a video that was actively promoted and went viral in 2013 (“PLEASE ENJOY AND SHARE THIS AMAZING VISUAL ART PIECE WITH YOUR FRIENDS & FAMILY,” Blippi wrote on HarlemShakePoop.com at the time) can suddenly become pretty difficult to find in 2019.

BuzzFeed reporter Katie Notopoulos did not link to, embed, or otherwise share the Harlem Shake Poop video in her piece, noting that “an attorney for [Blippi] sent BuzzFeed News a cease and desist letter asserting copyright on the video.”

BuzzFeed isn’t the only company that got a legal notice about the video’s copyright. In early January, someone claiming to represent Blippi filed a copyright takedown request with Google, which previously had linked to a Russian website that host the so-called “Harlem Shake Poop” video.

“The copywritten work of ‘Harlem Shake Poop’ is of a NSFW video of one man defecating on another,” the takedown request reads. “This video was not authorized for use on the links provided. This Russian site is illegally storing the videos on their servers and your search results have indexed them. The information in this notice is accurate. I swear under penalty of perjury I am authorized to act on behalf of the owner that holds the exclusive right of the Harlem Shake Poop video that allegedly infringed.”

The whole situation seems frivolous and absurd, but actually tells us quite a lot about how the internet works and the ways in which people weaponize copyright law to censor, hide things they’d prefer were forgotten, or threaten others.

"It wasn’t BuzzFeed’s reporting that led me to try to get the video taken down; I’ve been doing that for years, pretty much whenever and wherever I find it up somewhere," Blippi told Motherboard in an email after this article was originally published. "For another thing, filing a takedown notice hardly qualifies as going to 'extreme lengths.' Then again, the fact that you can call BuzzFeed’s piece about a six-year-old gross-out comedy video 'a blockbuster investigative report' with a straight face may suggest that journalistic standards aren’t what they used to be."

After reading Notopoulos’s article, I naturally went searching for the video. I Googled “Harlem Shake Poop” and found a series of YouTube videos of people reacting to Blippi’s original video (think of the 2 Girls 1 Cup reaction video genre), but not the original video itself. At the bottom of the Google search results, however, I saw a notice: “In response to a complaint we received under the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), we have removed 1 result from this page.”

The DMCA is a sweeping law enacted in 1998 that is vitally important to the ways the internet has grown and is governed. Provisions in the act have been used at different periods to criminalize, for example, security research and independent repair. “Section 512,” a part of the law that’s also known as the “safe harbor” provision, protects Silicon Valley giants from being sued into oblivion when their users upload copyrighted content to their websites. This law gives sites like Google, YouTube, and Facebook immunity from lawsuits, as long as they don’t have “actual knowledge” that “material ... on the system or network is infringing.”

This law has allowed for platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to flourish, because with millions or billions of users, some portion of them are going to upload photos, videos, or songs they don’t legally own the rights to. Without the safe harbor provision of the DMCA, it’s not a stretch to say that these companies and platforms could not exist. In fact, a large but unknowable portion of YouTube’s early growth was fueled by illegal song uploads, as the site became one of the larger repositories of music on the internet.

The key to DMCA is that once companies have “actual knowledge” of copyrighted material on their platforms, they have to “act expeditiously to remove, or disable access to, the material.” And how do they get that knowledge? Well, in many cases, the copyright holder simply tells them.

From Google, YouTube, or Facebook’s perspective, it’s better to be safe than sued, so megaplatforms often default to using their own copyright detection algorithms and, failing that, they usually take content down rather than challenging DMCA takedown requests.

The owner of a copyrighted material can file what’s known as a “DMCA takedown request,” and the platform must then remove that material or remove access to that material. Broadly speaking, DMCA takedown requests can be used by copyright holders to censor news, hide things they shouldn’t be hiding, and otherwise get things taken off the internet that don’t actually violate copyright law due to the myriad ways in which copyright law is extremely confusing, even to experts.

For example, the National Rifle Association targeted a parody website (which is broadly protected by copyright law) that attempted to raise awareness about gun violence. Axl Rose used DMCA to stop an unflattering meme about himself. OkCupid used the DMCA to get a scientific dataset of its users deleted from an open science website. Ancestry.com, somehow used DMCA to prevent a government transparency site from publishing public UFO sighting records. DMCA takedowns have been used to try to censor megapopular YouTuber PewDiePie. And so-on-and-so forth.

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The DMCA takedown request received by Google

The DMCA has indirectly had other massive effects on the way YouTube and other platforms work. YouTube has literally billions of videos, and many of them use copyrighted material in some way (a copyrighted song in the background, a cell phone video of a copyrighted work, etc.) This means that Google and YouTube receive millions of DMCA takedown requests per year, and that manually handling these takedown requests is both expensive, time consuming, and highly inefficient. And so YouTube has developed what’s known as “ContentID,” a system that proactively and automatically identified copyrighted content and acts upon it. Sometimes this means videos are deleted, other times it means that the ad revenue from videos is reallocated to the actual rights holder. But this system isn’t perfect, and so there are many creators who have had their earnings stolen from them by larger rights holders for using material that they legally could have. YouTube’s internal copyright system, which is nominally designed to weed out pirates and repeat offenders, has been used by YouTubers to beef with, scam, or hold other creators hostage.

From Google, YouTube, or Facebook’s perspective, it’s better to be safe than sued, so megaplatforms often default to using their own copyright detection algorithms and, failing that, they usually take content down rather than challenging DMCA takedown requests.

This all brings us, finally, to Blippi. Because the DMCA has been abused so much, civil society is constantly trying to reform it, or at least hold big platforms accountable by documenting the ways in which DMCA is used. Harvard’s Berkman-Klein Center created the Lumen Database to catalog millions of DMCA takedown requests and notices, and makes them publicly available. One of these publicly available DMCA takedown requests is the one I quoted above, filed to Google by the owner of harlemshakepoop.com in early January.

As far as DMCA takedown requests go, Blippi’s is about as open-and-shut of a case as you’ll get. The Russian site that hosts his poop videos does not own a copyright to the poop meme video, and therefore isn’t supposed to upload a copy of it. But Russian sites don’t really need to respond to DMCA notices, which is why the Google listing is the target of the actual takedown request.

The use of the DMCA to hide an embarrassing video, however, raises all sorts of other questions. Europe has a “Right to be Forgotten” law that allows people to request that Google and other companies remove articles that they’d prefer not exist. As you might imagine, that law has been regularly abused; last month, for example, a Dutch surgeon was able to get Google to remove a link about her medical suspension. The United States has no such law, but in the absence of Right to Be Forgotten legislation, the DMCA can sometimes be used to the same end.

Should Blippi be able to hide his poop video, which is gross, but not problematic or hateful? Honestly, I don’t know. But politicians and corporations are using the same tactics that he did to hide embarrassing and hateful content from their pasts that is definitely relevant and important to society. It’s easy to understand why Blippi would want his video to disappear forever. But if we let him clean up his mess, what else are we missing?

Update: This article has been updated with comment from Stevin John (Blippi), sent after this article was originally published. His full statement follows:

"As I told BuzzFeed, although I thought stuff like the 'Harlem Shake Poop' video was funny when I was in my early twenties, these days I’m really embarrassed that I ever did anything as stupid and gross as that. But that said, I think you’re misleading people when you write, 'In advance of BuzzFeed’s story, Blippi went to extreme lengths to get it off the internet.' For one thing, it wasn’t BuzzFeed’s reporting that led me to try to get the video taken down; I’ve been doing that for years, pretty much whenever and wherever I find it up somewhere. For another thing, filing a takedown notice hardly qualifies as going to 'extreme lengths.' Then again, the fact that you can call BuzzFeed’s piece about a six-year-old gross-out comedy video 'a blockbuster investigative report' with a straight face may suggest that journalistic standards aren’t what they used to be."