Facebook's new video business is awash with copyright infringement and celebrities are some of the biggest offenders
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Some of the biggest celebrities on the site are lifting viral videos created by others, sharing them with their fanbases, and then earning money on the clicks those views generate on links to their own work on iTunes or elsewhere.
Even when the videos are ultimately deleted, they can rack up tens of millions of views within days - and make the thieves serious money in the process.
Viral videos are big, big business
CEO Mark Zuckerberg revealed Facebook had passed a major milestone - "more than 4 billion daily video views," shooting up from 1 billion in September 2014.are landing book deals and making enough to buy mansions, and even lesser-known videobloggers can comfortably make enough from advert revenues to make it a full-time job.
Meanwhile, accidental viral video stars can earn six-figure paydays from their unexpected stardom, with entire companies springing up in their wake. When Jared Frank made an estimated $250,000 from a video of him being accidentally kicked in the head by train driver, for example, he was being represented by Jukin Media - a viral video licensing agency that has dozens of employees around the world.
As more and more video is consumed, Facebook needs to make its site an attractive platform for these content creators if it wants to stay relevant.
On the issue of copyright, it's stumbling.
Celebrities are stealing content with impunity
Jay Lichtenberger is a full-time viral video creator, best known for his "scary snowman" YouTube videos. I spoke to him in October 2014 for the Daily Dot, when he told me that copyright infringement on Facebook is "out of control." In the intervening six months, video views on Facebook have quadrupled - but when it comes to intellectual property theft, he says nothing has changed.
Here's an example of one of Lichtenberger's videos:
According to Mike Skogmo, director of communications at Jukin Media, "the scale is massive." And the perpetrators are some of the biggest accounts on the site.
Rapper Ludacris has previously shared material belonging to Lichtenberger without permission with his 19 million fans. Gossip blogger Perez Hilton (1.5 million) is another example. Skogmo pointed me towards comedian Dane Cook, who has been sharing Jukin Media's content without permission among his 4.5 million fans.
And perhaps most prolifically, there's Tyrese Gibson. The Verge's Chris Plante has previously written about the singer, who is "lifting the internet's most viral videos for fame and fortune" - and amassing a 25-million-strong following on Facebook in the process. The Verge described how Gibson monetises other people's content for himself:
According to CrowdTangle, [a Gibson video] is the fifth most popular Facebook post of 2014 with nearly 86 millions views at time of publish. The video is watermarked with the logo for ABC's America's Funniest Home Videos, but the footage is hosted on Gibson's Facebook Page. As for the link on the post, it directs to one of Gibson's albums on iTunes.
Celebrities like Gibson aren't just building a fanbase off other people's content - they're actively profiting from it. And while it's easy to be dismissive about the theft of viral videos, for the likes of Lichtenberger and and Skogmo, these are their livelihoods.
The motivations are obvious
(Skogmo agrees that videos are taken down swiftly once reported, but he notes Facebook's search tools make them difficult to find in the first place.)
Without meaningful punitive action taken against offenders, it's easy to see why they do it. The highly-sharable viral content can help pages build an audience extremely quickly.
If desired, they can then link out to ad-plastered external sites to cash in on this audience, although they can't monetise the stolen content directly on Facebook.
Facebook could solve this problem - but it hasn't
It would be relatively easy for Facebook to solve this problem. "Content ID" is software used on YouTube to automatically monitor for infringing content, scanning all new uploads against a database of registered intellectual property. When there's a match, the offending content can be automatically taken down, should the rights holder desire. Alternatively, it can be left up, and ads placed against it - so the rights holder can profit off the audience of the uploader.
Content ID isn't perfect, of course, and has been abused on YouTube before to censor legitimate criticism. But it is currently the only viable way to effectively police global communities like YouTube (or Facebook) for infringement. In May 2014, a similar system was also adopted by video site Vimeo.
And Facebook already uses similar software provided by Audible Magic to police for infringing music content. But this doesn't currently extend beyond music, leaving content creators like Lichtenberger vulnerable.
I reached out to Facebook for comment, and a spokesperson told me that the social network "respects the intellectual property rights of others and is committed to helping third parties protect their rights."
"Our Statements of Rights and Responsibilities prohibits users from posting content that violates another party's intellectual property rights," they continued. "No content or ads may include content that infringes upon or violates the rights of any third party, and upon notice of such impermissible content, we stand ready to respond including by removing the content from Facebook."
Where YouTube goes, Facebook follows
But it needs more than just metrics to attract the best content creators to the platform - it needs cold hard cash.
For years, YouTube has offered users a share of advertising revenues. It's how vloggers and viral stars like Zoella have made their fortunes.
And now for the first time, Facebook is now experimenting with ad share plans itself. In an effort to encourage media organisations to publish their articles natively to the site (rather than linking out to them), Facebook is offering a select pilot group of publishers the opportunity to earn advertising revenues by doing so.
Facebook wants to eat the Internet
It is sometimes said that Facebook is "eating the Internet." Little-by-little, the social network is expanding onto its competitors' turf, so users have less and less reason to ever leave its ecosystem.
It's a tactic so effective that one study found that millions of Facebook users don't even realise they are using the internet while browsing Facebook.
Facebook's renewed focus on video suggests YouTube is next in the firing line. To do this, it needs to get competitive - and this means sharing ad revenues from video uploaders and content creators. But if introduced without Content ID that extends beyond music, that opens the door to unscrupulous celebrities and copyright thieves directly profiting off the work of others.
Viral video creator Jay Lichtenberger told me that if that happens, he will be "extremely upset." And then?
"I'll look into filing a class-action lawsuit."
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