Facebook’s Piracy Problem

Are plagiarized YouTube videos helping fuel the social network’s astonishing video growth?

Freebooters may be helping to establish Facebook as a destination of choice for viral video online.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Screenshot via Facebook. Photos by Thinkstock.

Destin Sandlin is a missile flight test engineer from Alabama who moonlights as a YouTube star. His science-y YouTube channel, SmarterEveryDay, boasts some 2.8 million subscribers thanks to viral hits like “The Backwards Brain Bicycle,” “A Baffling Balloon Behavior,” and the fabulous “Slow Motion Flipping Cat Physics.”

In September, Sandlin finally made a video he’d wanted to do for years. He toted a special high-speed camera to a tattoo parlor to capture the skin art process in painfully beautiful detail. “When I was editing it, I told my dad, ‘This is gonna be my biggest video,’ ” Sandlin told me. He was right. The result, titled “TATTOOING Close Up (in Slow Motion),” has racked up more than 20 million views in nine months.

So far it sounds like a classic YouTube success story. But it’s actually a story about a form of online piracy called “freebooting” that has grown rampant on Facebook in just the past year. Sandlin and other YouTube personalities are convinced Facebook is profiting from it—at their expense. 

It’s also a story about a seismic shake-up in the online video industry. For the first time in its history, YouTube has a real rival. And Facebook isn’t playing by the same rules.

Two days after he published his tattoo video on YouTube, Sandlin got a message from one of his subscribers who had seen it on Facebook. It turned out his video was a viral smash there, too. In fact, it was spreading even faster on Facebook than it was on YouTube, with more than 18 million views in the first two days alone.

The problem was that Sandlin had never posted it to Facebook, and the version of it that appeared in millions of users’ News Feeds overnight wasn’t his. Rather, a British lads’ magazine called Zoo had apparently downloaded (or “ripped”) his video from YouTube, edited it to strip out references to Sandlin and his SmarterEveryDay channel, and posted the edited version on its own page, using Facebook’s native video player. It was an instant sensation, garnering millions of views and a raft of new followers for Zoo’s page. Sandlin, who puts some of the revenue from his YouTube videos toward his kids’ college fund, got nothing. (Zoo’s parent company, Bauer Media, declined to comment for this story.)

Sandlin’s story is one you hear a lot these days from people who make online videos professionally. Another YouTube video star, Grant Thompson of The King of Random, told me he gets emails nearly every day from subscribers spotting bootleg versions of his videos on Facebook. In May, he posted a YouTube video on how to make gummy candies in the shape of Legos, and it garnered about 600,000 views in the first 24 hours. Meanwhile, on Facebook, someone else’s ripped version of his video was approaching 10 million views. “The worst thing is just the shock of how viral they go on Facebook compared to the ones I post on YouTube,” Thompson said of his videos. “Some of these videos I’ve been working on for years. It makes me wonder why I want to keep doing this.”

Last year on his podcast Hello Internet, the Australian filmmaker Brady Haran coined the term freebooting to describe the act of taking someone’s YouTube video and re-uploading it on a different platform for your own benefit. “I had long said I found the word ‘copyright infringement’ somehow inadequate,” Haran explained to me via email. “I was just browsing words associated with piracy and thought the old word ‘freebooting’ somehow felt right and had a computer/online feel to it.” (“Freebooting” was 19th-century British slang for sea piracy.) Sandlin helped to popularize the term when he dedicated a SmarterEveryDay episode to explaining it and called on his fans to help him fight it.

Unlike sea pirates, Facebook freebooters don’t directly profit from their plundering. That’s because, unlike YouTube, Facebook doesn’t run commercials before its native videos—not yet, at least. That’s part of why they spread like wildfire. What the freebooter gains is attention, whether in the form of likes, shares, or new followers for its Facebook page. That can be valuable, sure, especially for brands and media outlets. But it might seem like a relatively small booty compared with the legal risk involved. Sandlin’s lawyer, Stephen Heninger, told me he believes Facebook freebooting amounts to copyright infringement, though he also said the phenomenon is new enough that the legal precedent is limited.

So why would anyone do it? Why, for that matter, would someone like the singer Tyrese Gibson—a notorious freebooter—do it on a regular basis?

To understand that, you have to look at the specifics of how video works on Facebook—and the incentives the company has created in its bid to rival YouTube.

Freebooting, to be clear, is not the same as simply sharing a link to someone’s YouTube video on Facebook. When you do that, Facebook embeds the YouTube video, and all the views—and advertising revenues—are properly credited to its original publisher. No one has a problem with that, including Sandlin. It’s how the system is supposed to work.

But it doesn’t work that way anymore—not well, anyway. That’s because, over the past year, Facebook has decided it’s no longer content to be a venue for sharing links to articles and videos found elsewhere on the Internet. Facebook now wants to host the content itself—and, in so doing, control the advertising revenue that flows from it. (I wrote about Facebook’s autoplay video push, and how it could shake the media industry, here.)

To that end, Facebook has built its own video platform and given it a decisive home-field advantage in the News Feed. Share a YouTube video on Facebook, and it will appear in your friends’ feeds as a small, static preview image with a “play” button on it—that is, if it appears in your friends’ News Feeds at all. Those who do see it will be hesitant to click on it, because they know it’s likely to be preceded by an ad. But take that same video and upload it directly to Facebook, and it will appear in your friends’ feeds as a full-size video that starts playing automatically as they scroll past it. (That’s less annoying than it sounds.) Oh, and it will appear in a lot of your friends’ feeds. Anecdotal evidence—and guidance from Facebook itself—suggests native videos perform orders of magnitude better on Facebook than those shared from other platforms.

Facebook’s video push has produced stunning results. In September, the company announced that its users were watching 1 billion videos a day on the social network. By April, that number had quadrupled to 4 billion. An in-depth Fortune story in June on “Facebook’s Video-Traffic Explosion” reported that publishers such as BuzzFeed have seen their Facebook video views grow tenfold in the past year. One caveat is that a view of a Facebook video might not mean quite the same thing as a view of a YouTube video, because Facebook videos play in your feed whether you click on them or not.

Regardless, it’s clear that YouTube is being squeezed out. In February 2014, just 1 in 4 videos posted on Facebook were uploaded natively, with the rest shared from other hosts such as YouTube, according to a SocialBakers report cited by Fortune. By February, 70 percent were hosted on Facebook.

So how does this relate to freebooting? Well, imagine you see a video on YouTube and want to share it on Facebook. You can do the ethical thing and share the YouTube link, but it’s unlikely many of your friends or followers will see it—which rather defeats the purpose. Or you can use a readily available software program to freeboot it (that is, rip it and re-upload it in Facebook’s player). And then sit back and watch the likes and shares roll in.

As always when Facebook’s News Feed algorithms appear to dovetail suspiciously with the company’s strategic goals, there are murmurs that the confluence of interests may not be entirely accidental. “I’m not saying [Facebook] actively designed their algorithm to steal money from individuals like me,” Sandlin said. “But without a doubt they’ve tailored their algorithm to make them the most money.”

Both Sandlin and Thompson told me they contact Facebook whenever they see a particularly egregious instance of freebooting and ask the company to take the video down. Facebook typically complies, they said—but often not until a day or two later, by which time the video’s virality has run much of its course. Two days, Sandlin told me, is “basically forever in Internet time.”

In contrast, YouTube—which in its early days was nearly sued into oblivion for its own copyright infringement foibles—now has sophisticated software to identify copyrighted content almost as soon as it’s posted. Depending on the type of content, YouTube’s Content ID system gives the copyright holders the option to automatically block the infringing video, monetize it, or allow it to remain and track its performance. The system isn’t perfect: Some critics say it gives copyright holders too much power to block videos that might have a legitimate fair-use case for legality. But Sandlin and Thompson say it helps makes original video operations like theirs possible.

Facebook also takes intellectual property rights “very seriously,” a company representative assured me. It uses a system called Audible Magic to identify copyrighted videos, and it promises to suspend the accounts of people who repeatedly violate intellectual property rules. But the company acknowledged it has room for improvement. “As video continues to grow on Facebook, we’re actively exploring further solutions to help [intellectual property] owners identify and manage potential infringing content, tailored for our unique platform and ecosystem,” a representative told me. “This is a significant technical challenge to solve, but we have a team working on it and expect to have more to share this summer.”

If that’s true, perhaps the era of rampant freebooting on Facebook will prove fleeting. Maybe this is just a stage of development for online video platforms: grow first, then cover your legal bases. Some might even see poetic justice in the potential disruption of YouTube’s business by an upstart that plays a little faster and looser when it comes to copyright enforcement.

In the meantime, freebooters may be helping to establish Facebook as a destination of choice for viral video online. It’s hard to ascertain the scope of the phenomenon, however, for the same reason it’s hard to stop it: Videos posted to Facebook aren’t searchable like YouTube videos, so there’s no way to find them unless they happen to appear in your feed. “Right now I know there are dozens of examples of my stuff being stolen on Facebook,” Sandlin said. “But I can’t do anything until the SmarterEveryDay following finds it and tells me about it.”

Sandlin also doesn’t buy the notion that copyright enforcement presents a “technical challenge” for Facebook. “You’re talking about the people who created facial recognition technology on a large-scale social platform,” he said.

If there’s a potential downside for Facebook, it’s the prospect of alienating video creators like Sandlin and Thompson before it has even begun to court them. And court them it almost certainly will: The company announced just last week a plan to begin running ads on some videos and share the revenues with publishers. Facebook’s initial revenue-sharing scheme sounds less generous than YouTube’s, because it will run a single ad alongside multiple videos and split the revenues among the creators. But it promises to make up for that by helping video creators reach a wider audience than they could on YouTube.

Sandlin told me he wouldn’t entirely rule out posting videos to Facebook in the future if it changed its terms of service to better protect users’ intellectual property. But he worries the social network’s prioritization of one-off viral hits isn’t conducive to building a sustainable video business. And, at this point, he’s just plain mad. “Facebook is not a creator-friendly platform,” he said. “In fact, they’re hostile.”