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Warning: Your private YouTube videos aren’t 100% private

Content creator making video in front of ring light

Getty Images/Kilito Chan

So, this came as quite the surprise. Even though a video I uploaded was marked as “unlisted,” within minutes of uploading it, I got hit with a copyright warning.

Let’s dive deeper.

I made a video

I have a personal YouTube channel that’s pretty popular. I try to put a new video up every month or so. They’re usually deep-dive how-to videos showing lots of detail about whatever project I’m working on.

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To make viewing some of the more tedious steps less tedious, I very carefully choose accompanying music.

Now, let’s be clear. This isn’t music I randomly pull off a CD or download from a streaming service. The music I use is purchased and licensed specifically for use on my YouTube channel.

I pay for the right to use all the tunes I upload.

There are a number of services that offer licensed music. I used Epidemic Sound for a few years and was quite happy with it. I recently switched to Envato Elements because I could buy a full year of access to both music and video for a fixed fee. There’s also Artlist.io, but I haven’t tried that yet.

When you license music for a video, it can be part of that video in perpetuity, even if you later stop with a given service. You have to publish the video while you’re paying for the service, but a long tail video with a lot of years of life can use that music without further licensing.

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YouTube itself offers the YouTube Audio Library, which provides royalty-free tunes you can embed in your videos.

For the video in question, I chose a couple of 20-30 second clips from Envato Elements, imported them into my Final Cut edit, and exported my edit up to YouTube. I always initially upload my videos as either private or unlisted, because I want to be able to fill in all the special bits (the keywords, description, thumbnail, etc) before clicking the option that allows the video to go public.

And, like I said at the beginning of this article, I immediately got a copyright warning message from YouTube.

YouTube visibility modes

Before I go into the warning, and what eventually happened, let’s clarify the various visibility modes YouTube offers.

Public mode is the visibility mode most people experience. A video that’s listed as public is available for everyone to watch.

Unlisted mode is the equivalent of Google Drive’s “people with this link can”. Basically, if you have the link to the video, you can watch it. But the video doesn’t show up on any channel or in any listing of available videos. It’s hidden, but viewable.

Private mode is (or should be) just that. It’s only available to you (and, apparently, copyright scanners) to watch and view. In order to view it, you must be logged into the account that uploaded it.

I’ve always thought those modes were inviolate. If you list something as unlisted, only the people you give the link to (and those they gave the link to) can see it. If you list something as private, it is visible to you alone.

That may not be the case. Read on.

The copyright hit

Shortly after I uploaded my unlisted video, I received the following message:


This was a copyright warning. It’s different from what YouTube calls copyright strikes. When you incur a copyright strike, you’re on the road to account termination. Three strikes, and YouTube can terminate your account.

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What I got was a more benign form of complaint, a copyright warning. When a copyright holder claims they own the copyright, they can choose to receive your monetization revenue to pay for the song. My videos aren’t monetized, but I might want to someday. More to the point, I’d already paid for the right to use the song.

The first step is you can dispute the claim. When your video is in copyright limbo, there’s a button you can click on the video to dispute the claim. You can provide information explaining your rights and the claimant can choose to release their claim. I did that, but the claimant, Elite Alliance Music, still insisted their claim was valid. I got another email:


What was interesting was this whole fuss was going on while the video was unlisted.


By this point, I was annoyed. I reached out to Envato (the folks I bought the song from), but they were only marginally helpful. They refused to intercede on my behalf, but did give me an email address for support at Elite Alliance Music.

I sent Elite a note explaining I had a license to the music. I eventually reached someone, who asked for details on both the video and the license. I shared those with him and the claim was released. My video was free!


The privacy question: the rest of the story

After the claim was released, I sent a note back to the email address I had for Elite. I asked them this, “How did your system even find this video? It hasn’t yet been published, but the minute I uploaded it as an unlisted video, your system flagged it. I wouldn’t have thought you’d even be able to see it until I opened it up publicly.”

The answer I got back from Epic Elite Support was very interesting: “The Content ID will automatically track any video that uses our client’s music, be it private or unlisted, so that we can then analyze it and take action accordingly.”

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The process had to be automated. My video was seven minutes long and I got the copyright hit email message within one or two minutes of the upload completing. There was no way a human could have watched it and identified possibly infringing tunes in that time.

YouTube’s Content ID mechanism passes uploaded videos though “a database of audio and visual content that’s been submitted to YouTube by copyright owners.” Essentially, the YouTube servers scan uploaded bits and compare them to patterns of bits that represent copyrighted material.

I was aware of the Content ID system and, in fact, I think it’s a good idea. As person who makes a living off the content I create, I value a system that helps prevent people from stealing other peoples’ work.

What I didn’t know was that Content ID not only scanned videos that were public, but also unlisted and private videos. Since uploaded videos marked as private aren’t available for other users to see, it doesn’t seem that copyright scanning should even be relevant.

But, as the support person from Elite told me, private videos are also scanned.

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This is disturbing, even if the scanning process is automated. It means those private videos are accessible by other systems and are not, strictly speaking, private.

I reached out to YouTube via their press contact email address and asked the following questions, just to be sure I fully understood the capabilities and limits of private video scanning. I asked:

  1. Do potential stakeholders like EpicElite get access to entire unlisted and private videos (including audio and video), just the audio, or a hash of the audio?
  2. Is there a chance that any person in any organization can see videos listed as unlisted or private to evaluate copyright ownership?
  3. Who else/what other organizations can view or hear content of unlisted or private videos?

Unfortunately, YouTube did not respond to my request for further information. If I get a response, I will update it here.

What does it all mean?

As an active YouTuber, I found a few things annoying and disturbing.

I was annoyed that I even had to deal with this issue. You’d think buying licenses from a well-respected vendor like Envato would mean that copyright issues would have been resolved before the songs were released for use by licensees. But because people who do not have licenses might use the songs, copyright holders have to be diligent.

I learned that just because you license music for YouTube, that won’t protect you from later having to take the time to defend your right to use it, delaying the publication of your video, and possibly affecting your ability to make a living. Publication of my video was delayed a week while I worked this out.

I was annoyed with Elite Alliance, the copyright managers. My initial dispute of their claim should have been enough, since I provided license information through the standard form. Having to escalate beyond that dispute was stressful.

I was also annoyed with Envato. Once the copyright dispute was rejected, I expected Envato to step in and actively defend my right to use the music I’d licensed from them. Instead, all the company did was provide an email address to a copyright manager at Elite and wish me luck.

Fortunately, once I was in touch with a human at Elite, the issue did resolve. But the automated resolution was clearly inclined to reject claims, even when the proper licenses were submitted.

And I’m disturbed that YouTube allows any systems to scan private videos. Videos listed as private should be private. Period. Once they’re released for anyone outside the account holder to view (whether unlisted or public), I’m good with allowing them to be scanned. But private should be private as long as it’s not illegal or immoral.

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Why might someone want a video to be private? It could be an unfinished video that a creator wants to see how it looks before it’s released. It could be a video that covers a topic under embargo and non-disclosure that can’t be shared until a given date and time. It could be personal stuff like a wedding or family reunion video that someone wants to store in the cloud. It could be a video of something medically-related, to later discuss with a doctor by sending a link or showing it on a smartphone or tablet. It could also be video of a puppy running around your house that you want to keep and look at, but not share with the world.

I also wonder whether there are any instances where humans at YouTube or Google can view private videos. There’s probably a law enforcement issue in the case of private videos that contain harmful material, but until or unless YouTube responds to my questions, I can’t share its reasoning with you.

So there you go. It was a bit of an unpleasant process but it all worked out in the end. Just keep in mind that if your videos are unlisted or private, they’re still visible to Big Brother.

Have you had copyright claims against your videos? Are you concerned about the level of “privacy” the private designation provides? Any other thoughts on this issue? Let us know in the comments below.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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