Why does this video of white noise on YouTube have 5 copyright claims against it?

A story of the absurd legality of infringement claims, and YouTube’s flawed process for policing potential copyright issues on its platform.


January 10, 2018

Back in 2015, Sebastian Tomczak generated 10 hours’ worth of white noise (a nondescript hissing sound) using open source software and posted it on YouTube for the world to enjoy.

Now, 2.5 years later, he’s facing 5 copyright infringement threats.

The story speaks not only to the absurd legality of infringement claims, but to YouTube’s flawed process for policing potential copyright issues on its platform.

Dude, I OWN that indistinct noise

Tomczak frequently posts 10-hour videos of strange, personally-generated sounds on his channel, which typically bring in less than 1k views a piece. But in this case, 5 claimants are arguing they own the rights to Tomczak’s white noise.

As BBC explains, this is because “copyright does not protect the idea, but the expression of the idea.” And turns out, YouTube’s method for flagging potential violations is far from perfect.

When algorithms are wrong

YouTube uses an algorithm to find videos that contain vaguely similar sounds, then automatically sends a copyright claim on behalf of the original poster. 

Thing is, YouTube’s algorithm only pulls from sounds submitted by content creators for potential infringement. So, eager copyright trolls can upload a bunch of ambiguous sounds (like white noise) and hope they get a match with future videos that are posted.

According to Google, the algorithm “can only ever be as good as the accuracy of what copyright holders submit” — and that means about 1% of the time, people like Tomczak get falsely accused.

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