Case Studies‎ > ‎

Tribute is Not Theft

Driscoll, 22 January 2010                            7

Dude, Where's My Video?

              From official documentation of U.S. presidential debates to cameraphone recordings of police brutality, the videos on YouTube represent a densely interrelated system of making, curating, reading, and remaking that effectively constitutes a "crossroads" of participatory culture. Unfortunately, YouTube's centralized architecture has proven unusually vulnerable to spurious claims of copyright infringement. Of the 283,091 videos tracked by MIT Free Culture's YouTomb project, nearly one quarter have already vanished (YouTomb, 2009).

              Individual users who have their videos removed or their accounts suspended manifest their anger, confusion, and frustration in a variety of ways. Some quietly discontinue use and never post another video. Others lash out at YouTube, Google, and the entertainment industry in scathing, explitive-laden testimonials (Arrington, 2009). Among users who identify as members of a fan community, however, responses appear more measured and effective. This case study concerns the resistant activities of one such group: the Living Room Rock Gods.

              As the most visible video hosting service on the web, YouTube is subject to considerable scrutiny by entertainment industry stakeholders concerned with the unauthorized reproduction of pop media artifacts. To shield itself from liability for its users' infringing activities, YouTube follows the "safe harbor" guidelines introduced by the 1998 Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) and temporarily suspends access to any video suspected of copyright infringement. In an effort to go "above and beyond" this legal obligation and soothe an anxious industry, YouTube provides major media organizations with software to automatically identify and claim ownership of potentially infringing user contributions (King, 2007).

              Since its introduction in 2007, the automated "Content ID" system has been the subject of considerable controversy. It was cited as a tool of censorship by the McCain/Palin campaign (Potter, 2008), singled out for its "chilling effect" on the exercise of free speech (Electronic Frontier Foundation, 2008), and criticized for ignoring the Fair Use provision of U.S. copyright law (Von Lohmann, 2009). In January of 2009, after the disintegration of a revenue-sharing agreement with YouTube, Warner Music Group ordered the immediate removal of any video containing music in its catalog (Sandoval, 2008). The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) dubbed the ensuing sweep a "Fair use massacre" as thousands of videos were removed without human review (Von Lohmann, 2009).

              The sudden crackdown on remix and reuse drove some users away from YouTube. These departing users often posted farewell messages to their channels entreating subscribers to follow them to a different video hosting site (Zcatz, 2009). For nascent communities organized primarily using YouTube's social infrastructure, however, a DMCA takedown represented the destruction of a potentially critical social node, stranding users and videos in isolation from one other. Rather than pull up stakes and move to another site, groups like the Living Room Rock Gods resisted the "massacre" and campaigned to have their videos reinstated. In pursuit of this goal, they leveraged the technical and social resources nurtured by their fan practice to effect tangible political change.


"What is a Living Room Rock God (LRRG)? Anyone who takes their rockin' seriously, but does so at home. There are thousands of us all over the world. We are the REAL rock stars!", The Living Room Rock Gods Facebook Group,



              The Living Room Rock Gods (LRRGs) are a group of musicians who produce and share videos of themselves playing along to recordings of their favorite songs (Thelwazaru, 2009). The videos are typically shot in an instructional style with the camera positioned so as to capture the details of their technique (Pauliewanna, 2007). Along with the instructional videos, the LRRGs occasionally collaborate on sophisticated "virtual band" projects in which recordings of several geographically-dispersed musicians are combined to form a single ensemble video (PookLowEnd, 2010). Nearly all of the LRRGs' videos are posted to YouTube. 

              The LRRGs are predominantly men of a wide age range from European and American countries. Some indicate a background in formal musical training while others are self-taught. Their recordings reveal a preference for hard and progressive rock as well as various forms of heavy metal. The LRRGs employ a variety of media technologies in their practice including multi-track recording equipment, non-linear audio/video editing software, and social web services. The LRRG community is manifests across a variety of web platforms including a blog, Facebook group, IRC chat channel, web forum, and numerous YouTube channels and pages. The size of the community varies among these spaces, with as few as 120 registered members on the Facebook group and as many as 800,000 views on some of the more popular YouTube channels.

              Because the LRRGs strive for accuracy in their playing and high-fidelity in their recordings, they are frequently flagged by YouTube's automated content ID system. During the "massacre" of January 2009, prolific LRRGs received dozens of DMCA takedown notices. The musicians turned to the LRRG web forum to express their frustration, only to discover that many of their peers were having the same experience. The forum made visible the collective effect of the Warner takedowns and the LRRGs began to see themselves as part of an embattled population rather than unlucky individuals.

              Galvanized by this emerging group identity, the LRRGs organized "Tribute Is NOT Theft", a "campaign [to defend their] basic consumer rights" (Pook, personal communication, February 27, 2009). The campaign adapted the tools and techniques of their fan practice to the pursuit of political goals. Some LRRGs attempted to contact musicians through their "official" YouTube channels while others recorded video testimonials or "open letters" to the rock stars they emulate in their videos. Pauliewanna, a 43-year old drummer living in Canada, addressed Neil Peart, drummer of the progressive rock band, Rush:


"We're just trying to do what we love [...] listen to your music, play it, share it with others, show them how it's done, see how they do it, compare notes [...] our primary reason is to share with other drummers. We just want you [...] to know that this is happening." (Pauliewanna, 2008)


              Shortly after the campaign was announced, the web forum became the primary site for organizing the LRRGs. In several lengthy threads, the LRRGs compared notes and assembled a list of labels, artists, and songs to avoid (PookLowEnd, 2009a). As the LRRGs confronted the bureaucracy of the DMCA, they traded information about US copyright law (Zodiak, 2009) and consolidation in the music industry (Mymassivehead, 2009), they critiqued the YouTube Terms of Service (ActionHobo, 2009), suggested technical means for circumventing the automated identification system (PookLowEnd, 2009b), and built a "Fair Use" argument to defend their instructional video practices. PookLowEnd and Zodiak contacted the Electronic Frontier Foundation for legal advice and urged other LRRGs to seek similar assistance (Zodiak, 2009). This distributed cognition, peer education, scaffolding, and support enabled users who would have otherwise given up to assert their right to challenge claims of alleged copyright infringement.

              Perhaps the most powerful product of the forums was a sense of collective strength and solidarity among the LRRGs. In the months following the campaign, users coached each other through the DMCA "counter-notification" cycle and many of the videos that were initially taken down were reinstated. These successes empowered the LRRGs to resist suspensions and takedowns rather than migrate to another site out of frustration. Munkybarz makes his sense of collective strength plain when he identifies himself as an "LRRG" in a forum post from February 2009:


"I'm not clear on the steps that need to be taken in order to try to get the suspension lifted. Be assured however that there will be no bowing and scraping by this LRRG, and I ain't grovelling." (Munkybarz, 2009)


              Though there was nothing overtly political about their activities prior to the "massacre", the LRRGs quickly became activated, organized, and educated. The Tribute Is NOT Theft campaign drew principally on three characteristics of the Living Room Rock Gods. First, the LRRGs had an established collective identity. Self-identification as an "LRRG" empowered members to respond confidently to takedown notices knowing that they were not acting in isolation. Second, the LRRGs had a robust technological infrastructure in place prior to the campaign. Though their social network on YouTube was damaged by the Warner Music Group takedowns, their web forums and Facebook group enabled them to maintain communication and group cohesiion. Finally, the LRRGs' fan practices - video-making, blogging, and social networking - involved generalizable skills that were easily adapted to political action. The same media savvy that they had previously used to create and share music videos could be exploited in the pursuit of their political goals.

              "Look at me, getting all political!", wrote PookLowEnd after announcing the Tribute Is NOT Theft campaign in November 2008 (PookLowEnd, 2008). There was nothing overtly political about the Living Room Rock Gods prior to his announcement and yet they demonstrated an incredible flexibility and readiness when their community was threatened. PookLowEnd was radicalized by a conflict between YouTube's copyright policy and his own sense of right and wrong. But a mere moment of rupture is not enough. It was Pook's sense of belonging to the LRRG community that ultimately enabled him to translate a radical impulse into concrete political action. 





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