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Multiple YouTubers Are Trying to Claim Copyright Over a Video of White Noise

Vice President of Global Content Partnerships at YouTube Robert Kyncl speaks during the Entertainment Matters keynote address at the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show at the Las Vegas Hotel & Casino January 12, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada. CES, the world's largest annual consumer technology trade show, runs through January 13 and features more than 3,100 exhibitors showing off their latest products and services to about 140,000 attendees.

As a technical term, the phrase “white noise” refers to a randomly generated signal, the amplitude of which is evenly distributed across all frequencies. Our ears perceive these signals as a steady wooshing sound that’s either grating or soothing, depending on your dispensation. Plenty of people, as you probably know, use white noise as a sleep or study aid. You can’t claim ownership of white noise any more than you could claim ownership of the sound of middle C, or gravity, or a particular math equation—it’s not something that anyone invented, it’s just a phenomenon that exists in the world. But that hasn’t stopped people from trying.

The website TorrentFreak has a dispatch from the endlessly strange and fascinating world of YouTube, where a music technologist named Sebastian Tomczak recently learned he’d been hit with five different copyright complaints over a video he uploaded in 2015 called “10 Hours of Low Level White Noise,” which you can watch here if you’re so inclined. Uploading the sound of static can apparently be quite lucrative: searching for the term “white noise” on YouTube generates over 8 million search results, the most popular of which have upwards of 20 million views–putting them into the range of six figures in total revenue for their creators, according to estimates about YouTube payout rates published by Business Insider.

Tomczak’s video, on the other hand, has just 8,000 views at the time of this writing. The YouTubers who filed complaints all elected to begin monetizing his video, meaning YouTube tacked a preroll ad onto it, and they each get a little bit of cash every time someone watches that ad. This is the same process by which Britney Spears and her label make money when people listen to her songs on YouTube, even if they were originally uploaded by a fan–except, again, in this case, it’s literally just random noise.

The claimants likely were alerted to Tomczak’s video by YouTube’s Content ID system, which automatically crawls the site for audio and video that is similar to other audio and video on the site, then alerts the original uploaders and gives them the option of filing a claim. The system relies on the uploaders being scrupulous about what claims they make: it’s entirely possible, likely even, that not a single human YouTube employee was involved in bringing Tomczak’s video to the claimants’ attention. But of course, no one is going to be particularly scrupulous when there’s money on the table.

Tomczak’s case is a particularly surreal illustration of the problems inherent to YouTube’s automated copyright policy. (The blogger Julia Reda has a good list of others: a video of a purring cat that was mistakenly ID’ed as copyrighted audio belonging to EMI Music, artists who are served copyright infringement notices over their own uploads of music they wrote.) It’s especially poignant and funny because of a particular quality of white noise: it’s the audio equivalent of a string of random numbers. It’s easy to generate your own 10-hour noise file using free software like Audacity–that’s what Tomczak did–and though they will all sound the same to our ears, on a fundamental level, each one is actually completely unique. Not only are these copyright claims spurious, they’re technically inaccurate. It’s like one snowflake trying to accuse another of ripping off its style.