Accidental Copyright Infringement on YouTube (Explained)

Understanding and avoiding accidental copyright infringement is crucial for anyone uploading videos to YouTube. With over 500 hours of content uploaded every minute, it’s easy to unintentionally use copyrighted material. This comprehensive guide will explain what constitutes infringement, how to avoid it, and what to do if you receive a copyright claim.

What is Copyright Infringement?

Copyright infringement occurs when you use someone else’s creative work without permission. This includes music, video clips, images, written content, and more. YouTube’s automated systems scan uploads to detect unauthorized use of copyrighted material. If found, the copyright holder can have your video blocked, tracked, or monetized. Infringement also opens you up to potential legal consequences.

Accidental infringement commonly happens when:

  • Background music or TV is captured in your video
  • You use a popular song without licensing it
  • You incorporate copyrighted video clips or images
  • You closely imitate a copyrighted property

Simply claiming “fair use” is not enough to avoid penalties. We’ll explore fair use protections and other ways to legally use copyrighted material later. First, let’s look at how to identify and avoid accidental infringement.

How to Avoid Accidental Copyright Infringement

Being proactive is the best way to avoid accidental copyright strikes. Follow these tips to keep your channel in good standing:

Research Original Creations Thoroughly

If you’re substantially using a copyrighted property, research whether it’s under public domain or has a Creative Commons license allowing reuse. Sites like Wikimedia Commons offer public domain and Creative Commons-licensed media.

If you can’t find licensing information, it’s safest to assume the work is fully copyrighted. Reach out to the creator directly for permission.

Audit Background Content Before Uploading

YouTube’s algorithms often catch background music and video. Before uploading, carefully audit your video’s background audio and visuals for copyrighted material.

Consider if background content is crucial. Does it add something unique, or can you remove it without impacting quality? Erring on the side of caution is wise.

Use Original Compositions Whenever Possible

Rather than taking a chance on copyright disputes, use original music and visuals you created or have explicit rights to. Resources like YouTube Audio Library offer free-to-use songs and sound effects.

Commissioning original compositions also avoids headaches. Sites like Fiverr and Upwork connect creators with affordable composers.

Double Check Edits Before Publishing

It’s easy to overlook a copyrighted clip or song when editing. Before publishing, carefully watch and listen to your final cut for unauthorized usage. Ask a second set of eyes to double check. A fresh perspective can catch errors you may overlook.

Being extremely cautious with copyrighted content is the best policy on YouTube. But other protections like fair use still allow limited use. Let’s explore fair use and its nuances.

YouTube Fair Use Protections

YouTube fair use policies allow creators to use copyrighted material without permission under certain conditions. Invoking fair use is complex, subjective territory though. Don’t assume your usage automatically qualifies. Consider four factors:

1. Purpose and character of use

Non-commercial, educational, commentary, and transformative uses tend to qualify easier. Using recognizable clips solely to drive views rarely does.

2. Nature of copyrighted work

Using factual content is more justifiable than creative works. Criticizing or commenting on the copyrighted content itself strengthens the argument.

3. Amount used

Brief clips make fair use arguments stronger than extensively reusing content. Use only what is essential to make your point.

4. Commercial effect

If your upload directly competes with or damages the commercial value of the original, fair use rarely applies. Revenue loss must not overshadow public interest.

Evaluating these factors thoroughly, and arguing how they support fair use in disputes, is key. Because application is so subjective, outcomes aren’t guaranteed. Weigh risks before proceeding.

Other Legal Uses of Copyrighted Content

Beyond fair use, a few other methods can legally incorporate copyrighted materials:


You can license music, video clips, and more from sites like Artlist and Envato Elements. Prices vary based on use case.

Public Domain Works

Media like films, music, and books eventually enter the public domain as copyrights expire. Public domain content can be used freely. Check Wikimedia Commons.

Creative Commons Licensing

Some creators release work under Creative Commons (CC). CC details allowed uses like modifications and commercialization. Understand permissions before using.


Fair use allows copyrighted content to be discussed for commentary and criticism purposes. Issues still arise if used excessively without context.


Transformative parody of copyrighted work has legal protections. True parody mocks the original; simply remixing content does not qualify.

In disputed cases, the copyright holder typically wins. Relying solely on fair use and parody defenses is risky. Do your homework before proceeding.

What to Do if You Receive a Copyright Claim

With the explosion of YouTube uploads, copyright claims are common. Don’t panic if you get one. YouTube’s system is designed to help creators resolve disputes directly with rights holders. Here are the common claim types and suggested response strategies:

Blocked Content

If your upload is blocked globally by the claimant, you cannot republish it without making changes. You can appeal the claim with a fair use rationale, or reach out the claimant to request permission or settlement. If neither works, you must remove the copyrighted content altogether before reuploading.

Tracked Content

Tracked content remains viewable on your channel, but the claimant monitors stats and revenue. Appeals rarely overturn tracking. Attempt negotiation with the claimant first. Be willing to edit out content if needed.

Claimed Ad Revenue

In some cases, claims result in lost ad revenue without blocking content. This is common with music claims. Appeal if you have fair use basis. If appeal rejected, remove flagged content and reupload, or negotiate a revenue split with the claimant.

When responding to claims, stay professional in communication with claimants. Present any fair use rationale clearly. Be willing to edit out content if appeals and negotiation fail. Acting in good faith can help.

If claimants issue takedown notices under DMCA law, you must comply promptly. Failing to do so risks channel penalties or legal action. You can file a DMCA counter-notice arguing fair use, but hire a lawyer if pursuing this route.

Top Tips to Avoid Copyright Issues on YouTube

Here are key takeaways to keep your channel thriving and copyright-issue-free:

Audit Background Content

Copyrighted background music and video often triggers claims. Remove or mute anything unessential.

Use Original Creations Whenever Possible

Avoid headaches by making or commissioning original visuals and music.

Research Public Domain & Creative Commons Media

Legal alternatives exist! Source media legally using public domain and Creative Commons-licensed materials.

Argue Fair Use Caution

Only rely on fair use when you thoroughly evaluate and meet all criteria. Weigh risks carefully.

Act Quickly and Professionally to Resolve Claims

Respond to claimants politely, and show willingness to edit out flagged content if needed.

Staying vigilant, acting in good faith, and resolving issues promptly keeps your channel in good standing. Avoid guessing about copyrights – when in doubt, leave it out or get explicit permission. Your viewers will reward you for uploading legally and ethically.

Frequently Asked Questions

What constitutes copyright infringement?

Using a substantial amount of a creative work without permission from the rights holder qualifies as infringement. This includes music, written content, video clips, and images. Even if unintentional or covered by fair use, unauthorized use can still result in claims.

How can I avoid copyright issues on YouTube?

Be extremely cautious about using copyrighted materials not created by you. Audit your videos’ background content before publishing. Use original or legally licensed music/media whenever possible. Understand fair use fully before attempting to apply protections, and be prepared to edit out flagged content if needed.

What happens if I get a copyright claim on YouTube?

Copyright claims result in one of three potential penalties – blocked content, tracked revenue sharing, or complete revenue loss. Carefully review the claim details. You can appeal if you have a fair use basis, or attempt negotiation with the claimant. If appeals and negotiation fail, remove all disputed content before reuploading.

Can I dispute a copyright claim with fair use?

You can argue fair use to dispute claims, but success is not guaranteed. Fair use is complex and subjective. Thoroughly evaluate how your use aligns with all four factors of fair use protections. Even if you have a case, the copyright holder often still wins. Proceed with extreme caution.

What is the penalty for repeat copyright violations?

YouTube penalizes channels with multiple copyright claims, especially repeat offenses. Potential consequences include loss of monetization access, multi-month blocks on uploading any content, and permanent channel termination. Avoid any copyright issues by being extremely cautious about all material used.


Avoiding accidental copyright infringement on YouTube simply comes down to staying vigilant, only using original or licensed media, and acting in good faith to resolve any issues. While fair use and other protections exist, relying on them is extremely risky. Whenever possible, create your own compositions or legally license supporting media. Staying within the YouTube terms of service guarantees your channel remains in good standing.

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