Weezer's Bizarre Copyright Crackdown on 'Hash Pipe'

A long, perplexing journey through the world of YouTube copyright.

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Dec 15 2015, 2:10pm

Like many guitar dabblers who are neither talented nor dedicated, I've got to have songs explained to me by someone sitting in front of a webcam in their bedroom in order to stumble my way through even the most basic of tunes. And so one evening recently I was trying to learn a couple Weezer songs by watching YouTube tutorials, as one does.

After getting thoroughly frustrated at the upstrokes of "Say It Ain't So," I saw a related tutorial for "Hash Pipe." Not much of a Green Album fan but it's easily the best song on the album and so I retargeted my efforts. I clicked, and then…THIS:

The video was there, but the audio was muted. Then I clicked another Hash Pipe tutorial. And another. And another. All muted. I found Hash Pipe covers—muted. Even this one, featuring a man in a wig, a keyboard, a saxophone, and a stand up bass titled "Hash Pipe (1920's Great Gatsby Style Weezer Cover) - Thomas Jefferson and His Ragtime Orchestra" was muted due to a copyright claim.

Having not run into this problem before, I obsessed over it for a couple hours, starting a deep journey into the rabbit hole that is Weezer YouTube. I observed several things: Live performances (played by Weezer) of Hash Pipe filmed and uploaded by concertgoers, covers of Hash Pipe, and Hash Pipe how-to-play videos were muted; videos that were blatant piracy (i.e. lyric videos of Weezer's original recording of Hash Pipe) were not muted. Finally, no other Weezer song seemed to be muted with the consistency of Hash Pipe, though I found a few compilations of guitar riffs (such as this one) that were.

I started wondering whether Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo had had one of those weird moments like when he swore off part of his back catalog for some reason. Did he watch some particularly offensive rendition of Hash Pipe, call his lawyers, and tell them to remove any and all traces of the song's audio from YouTube?

I reached out to Cuomo on Twitter, through his agency, and through Snapchat (delivered but unopened :() but have not heard back. A quick perusal of Setlist.fm shows that Hash Pipe very much remains a part of Weezer's regular concert rotation. I have not managed to find any whispers of the group hating when a fan plays their song. I also reached out to YouTube and Google via Google's press line and a YouTube contact I have.

The next morning—perhaps because of my emails—some (but not all) of the videos had been unmuted, though no one got back to me immediately.

And so I went down the line contacting people. I called up copyright lawyers, commented on the videos of people who had been muted, and emailed several of the muted uploaders. As I suspected, there is a simple but unsatisfying explanation about what's going on.

There are many types of music copyright, but two of them are important here: The recording copyright and the composition copyright. Recording copyright covers the actual mp3 files—it's why you're not allowed to download or upload music you don't own the rights to. Covering a song in public (or on YouTube) often isn't any more legal than straight up stealing an mp3, however. Whoever writes a song generally has the legal right to control who plays it in exchange for money—in other words, composition copyright covers covers.

In these instances, the copyright claims were filed by E.O. Smith Music, which stands for Edwin O. Smith Music, Cuomo's music publishing imprint. It's named after his high school, for those of you into Weezer trivia.

Covers were big business back in the early days of rock and roll, when many songs were written by one person and then performed by lots of different artists for different demographics and radio audiences. In recent years, covers have generally served more to promote awareness of the original artist, and covers often fall under a compulsory license structure. That means if an artist records a cover song, he or she will have to pay some royalties to the original composer. This helps avert lots of legal battles.

But what happens on YouTube, where a cover artist (or a how-to-play instructor) isn't always getting paid for their performance?

"A cover usually implicates the rights of the composition," Erik Stallman, director of open internet for the Center for Democracy and Technology, told me. Stallman noted that even if the song sounds totally different—a ragtime cover of Weezer, for instance, it's still probably a copyright issue. "Even if the cover sounds totally different from the original work, it's squarely referring back to the original work, so is that a transformative fair use?"

Covering a song without licensing it is, very broadly speaking, illegal. YouTube is filled with millions upon millions of covers of songs, however. Remember, Justin Bieber more or less started as a YouTube cover artist, and so have dozens of other YouTube celebs. Removing or muting every single cover song and how-to-play video on the site would more-or-less break a nontrivial amount of the network.

Rivers Cuomo isn't releasing tutorial videos, his fans are. A how-to-play video is inherently different than the actual recording of the song. It services an entirely different niche, it's a different product altogether.

YouTube deals with its cover copyright problem with a very controversial program called ContentID that has been repeatedly derided by groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation for being unfair to uploaders and destructive to creativity in general.

ContentID has been around since 2007, and it's basically a way for YouTube to placate copyright holders (in this case, Weezer) without totally breaking the website for its users. In this case, Weezer uploads the original recording of Hash Pipe, and whenever anyone uploads a copy of the song, ContentID tags it and notifies Weezer. Weezer has three choices: It can monetize the video (meaning it can run ads against it); it can ask YouTube to take the video down; or it can mute the video. The person who uploaded the video has no immediate recourse against this—ContentID is always initially trusted.

ContentID has now tagged more than 400 million videos, and Google has spent more than $60 million developing and maintaining the tool, according to the company.

ContentID can also identify parts of songs automatically, meaning that if a cover sounds close enough to the original, it can be tagged. If it doesn't sound that similar—which is what I suspect happened in the case of that Weezer ragtime video embedded above—Weezer can request a manual ContentID tag. This is what happened in at least one case, according to a screenshot sent to me by a person who uploaded a live version of Hash Pipe performed by Weezer.

YouTube told me that ContentID has let users keep their videos uploaded while keeping copyright holders happy, all while reducing the burden of Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown requests, which are more legally burdensome for the site, copyright holders, and the person who uploaded the video. The company says it has an appeals process for videos that are improperly identified (more on this in a second).

"In the nearly eight years since we launched ContentID, it has helped everyone from large media companies to up-and-coming creators manage their content when it appears on YouTube," YouTube told me in a statement. "We've been rolling out regular updates to the system, and back in October 2012 we introduced an appeals process that gives eligible users a new choice when dealing with a rejected dispute."

Broadly speaking, the videos got ContentID'ed and Weezer decided to take down the audio on the Hash Pipe videos. But it's not that simple (of course). There are several outstanding questions here, some of which I can definitely answer, others that I can take an educated guess on but that ultimately come down to specific quirks in the system that YouTube would not comment on.

Only Weezer knows why this is happening specifically to Hash Pipe videos. Other Weezer songs very well may have been ContentID'ed, but for whatever reason, the band decided to monetize them or leave the songs be—this points to a Cuomo eccentricity, I suppose. It looks like someone from Weezer went through every single uploaded video of Hash Pipe and had YouTube mute covers, how-to videos, and live performances of the song.

One piece of evidence in the "Weezer-is-strange" column: Charles Nibbana, who has been uploading live videos of the band that he's recorded from the crowd, told me that only his Hash Pipe videos had been muted; the other ones had been monetized.

Hash Pipe: Muted

Perfect Situation: Monetized

"I think it's ironic that all of my other Weezer videos, such as the one in the second photo attachment, are being 'monetized by claimant' and they chose Hash Pipe to mute?," Nibbana told me. "It doesn't make any sense when they can just continue monetizing all of their videos."

But back to Hash Pipe and alternate theories: In at least one case, a video that has been previously muted had been taken down altogether.

This video was muted, then removed altogether

There's a potential explanation for this. If you are a copyright nerd, you may remember the saga surrounding a Buffy the Vampire Slayer vs Twilight mashup video made by Jonathan McIntosh from 2013. That entire blog post is worth a read, but basically Lionsgate attempted to monetize the video, but McIntosh wanted it to remain unmonetized. McIntosh filed an appeal through his lawyer and eventually Lionsgate relented. Then it happened again. McIntosh filed another appeal and Lionsgate hit him and YouTube with a DMCA takedown request, which is a legal copyright claim (ContentID doesn't involve "the law," per se—DMCA takedowns do).

A quick note on the ContentID appeals process: YouTube did not provide me with stats for how often appeals are filed or how many of them are won by the appealer, perhaps because it doesn't know: The appeals process doesn't involve YouTube at all. It merely connects the video uploader with the original copyright holder, and tells them to figure it out. Often this pits a teenager against a music company's lawyers, and I suspect the process rarely ends well for the teenager. McIntosh eventually triumphed, but not without involving his own lawyers.

YouTube would not specifically comment on what happened with these Weezer videos. However, it seems possible that Weezer was not given the option to monetize some specific Hash Pipe how-to-play videos or covers, perhaps because there is clearly some of the uploaders' own intellectual property involved in making such a video. So it's possible (and again, this is just an educated guess) that YouTube gave Weezer the option to either remove the video (as happened in this one) or to mute it, but not to run ads against it.

Image: YouTube

Such a solution makes sense from YouTube's perspective. ContentID monetization isn't always an all-or-nothing situation—the company allows a limited number of YouTubers to work with a limited number of artists on a revenue share model for covers. But it doesn't allow all YouTubers to work with all artists. Presumably, these uploaders with a couple thousand views and low production values do not meet whatever YouTube's requirements are to do a revenue share. And so YouTube's must defend Weezer's copyright without blatantly paying 100 percent of the profits to the band for a recording that is not strictly Cuomo's. The end result is bad for everyone: A deleted video or a muted, useless version of it.

So, in sum, ContentID is an imperfect system. It may be illegal to record cover versions of a song, but there is still intellectual property that belongs to the uploader of a how-to video or of a video game analysis video (which are notoriously ContentID'ed all the time). In these how-to videos—many of which are much longer than the song in question—the guitarist talks you through how to hold your hand on the fretboard, different flourishes you can give the song, even basic advice about how to play certain chords or portions of the song for people who are beginners or have oddly sized hands.

Weezer may have written the song, but Rivers Cuomo isn't releasing tutorial videos about how to play it—his fans are. A how-to-play video is inherently different than the actual recording of the song. It services an entirely different niche, it's a different product altogether. With ContentID, YouTube sometimes allows artists to profit off of work they didn't do, which is an argument that sounds quite familiar to the original piracy conversation.

When I noticed his video had been muted, I asked the man you see in the how-to-play screenshot you see above if he knew what happened (I didn't tell him I had emailed YouTube, because I hadn't reached out to the company yet).

"I don't know what happened, but it was muted due to some crazy 'copyright' claim," he said. "But I filed a protest and now the audio is back! Problem solved I guess. EDUCATION AND ROCK AND ROLL FOR ALL! "

Unsurprisingly, he didn't know about all the legal calculations going on behind the scenes. And why would he? None of this stuff really makes any sense.