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A Small YouTube Account Believes A Much Larger Channel Is Gaming The System To Successfully Pull Down Videos That Criticize It

In this week's newsletter: Prank channel Nelk Boys has used "copyright" to successfully pull down a video about them twice, and how one man running a popular Peloton TikTok account has done the marketing work for the company.

Posted on September 24, 2021, at 8:01 a.m. ET

This is an excerpt from Please Like Me, BuzzFeed News’ newsletter about how influencers are battling for your attention. You can sign up here.

Prank channel Nelk Boys has used "copyright" to successfully pull down a video criticizing them

Tripping / YouTube

Last week, Tripping, a smallish YouTube creator with about 88,000 subscribers, faced an uphill battle to keep one of his videos up. It was pretty standard as far as social commentary videos go on YouTube: an 11-minute presentation about “The Rise and Fall of NELK,” a prank channel that has nearly 7 million subscribers.

But since Tripping posted it in May, it’s been flagged for “copyright” infringement several times. Last week, it was successfully taken down by YouTube before being reinstated over the weekend, when 21-year-old Quentin, who owns the account, disputed it. But Quentin is now concerned that his video criticizing the pranksters was successfully censored by the Nelk Boys themselves through a loophole he says YouTube isn’t vetting carefully enough.

Quentin said he initially posted the video about the Nelk Boys — a fratty stunt troupe who infamously encouraged fans to ignore COVID protocols last year — to call out behavior he didn’t think was “morally right.” In one example he pointed to, the Nelk Boys were vacationing in Italy on a wine tour and “dousing themselves in wine and making a fool of themselves and ruining this business,” he told me.

Within a week of publishing the video, Quentin said, he received the first copyright notice. “A copyright owner ... has claimed some material in your video. As a result, your video has been blocked, and can no longer be played on YouTube,” the notice from YouTube, which he shared with me, read. He challenged it with YouTube and contacted the Nelk Boys directly to try to rectify the situation, but he never heard back. (He has not been able to get ahold of them at all in this whole debacle, he said.) The video was reinstated after the appeal went through.

Three months later, however, he received an official violation of “1 copyright strike.” (If a creator receives three copyright strikes, their channel can be permanently banned.) The email from YouTube listed Nelk cofounder Kyle Forgeard as the person issuing the violation. The video was then removed entirely. “If you get multiple strikes, we’ll have to disable your account,” the email read.

Quentin said he did not believe he had done anything wrong, and the fact that YouTube threatened to pull his entire channel down shows the power large creators have to game the system.

“They’re using copyright ... and YouTube’s system as a way to avoid the criticism; it’s a very common thing on YouTube,” he said. “There’s no way for YouTube to determine what’s this or that. If Nelk [claims copyright], they’re going to have to accept it out of respect for Nelk and YouTube not getting sued. But with fair use and for commentary, you’re allowed to use clips in that manner.”

When I reached out, a spokesperson at YouTube said users can file a dispute if they think their account was flagged erroneously, and, in this case, it was. I then asked them how YouTube is going to improve this system — especially when algorithmic moderation has become a widespread issue time and time again — but I did not hear back.

I also reached out to the Nelk Boys about why they went after Quentin’s video, and I’ve yet to hear back.

Quentin said he feels somewhat powerless when something like this comes up: “[Nelk] are so much larger than me. They have millions of subscribers and fans, and I only have a minimal fraction of what they have. All I’m betting on is YouTube is finally reviewing it and coming to terms with what’s right.”

He added, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they still want that video down.”

He just hopes YouTube “implement[s] a system that prevents larger channels from filing claims like this and have it go directly through because copyright is a serious thing.”

Automation is an imperfect system because it requires us to plug in cheat codes for a lot of nuance that only human people can suss out on a case-by-case basis. In Quentin’s case, his video is not far from the very popular genre on YouTube calling out questionable behavior from celebrities or other YouTubers. I think most of us can also argue that his video is different enough to be protected by fair use and that it’s not trying to pass the Nelk Boys’ content off as his own. It’s just using a few clips of theirs to make a greater point. But the fact that his video was jeopardized twice for indictments that don’t fit the crime is why social media platforms need to invest in a better system.

Until then, what we currently have going is disgruntled users sharing their stories publicly in the hope that companies rectify their mistakes. We repeat the next day. I can’t imagine this is a sustainable system.

A Peloton megafan has been catapulting the social media careers of some of the company’s most popular instructors. He’s now considering a career with the company.

John Prewitt, TikTok

John Prewitt is an early Peloton adopter. He and his wife got their first bike in 2017, and they now have two bikes so they aren’t “fighting over” it, he told me. The 43-year-old rides about two hours a day, spanning and spinning four to five classes. For fun, he also runs a TikTok account that he has to disclaim is totally “UNAFFILIATED W/ PELOTON.”

If you’re on the app at all, you’ve probably seen his videos. They usually feature instructor-turned-DWTS-contestant Cody Rigsby and all his funniest standout soliloquies. Sometimes the videos stay within niche PelotonTok, and sometimes they go hugely viral. John’s TikTok account has over 200K followers; beyond that reach, what’s more notable is how captivating these videos are. People frequently comment that they want to get a Peloton solely because of instructors like Cody. In fact, John told me he’s “maxed out on referrals” because of the sheer volume of people who actually buy a bike and subscribe to classes after watching his TikToks. That kind of conversion is WILD to me; companies couldn’t conceive of a better marketing ploy, and John is doing all of this in his free time.

That is, until recently, when he took a call with Peloton’s social media team to consider a career with them. John currently works as an advertising analyst, which he described as much less “creative” than what he does online.

“It was a good conversation because I definitely wanted to help them expand their TikTok, which their social media person just launched last Friday. I gave them some tips, and [said] that I could potentially freelance for them,” he said. “I gave them some ideas about celebrating the members more and recognizing their unique stories.”

The only complication so far, he said about switching careers to work for a company he loves so much, is they don’t offer full-time remote work for employees.

The social media team also told John that they can't share clips like the ones he creates on TikTok because of licensed music.

“They made it really clear it’s a real pain point for them that they can’t use any music, because Peloton is such a lightning rod for anyone to come after them for royalties,” John said.

So, his free willingness to continue to cut clips from workouts to post on TikTok works to the company’s advantage. They don’t have to worry about music rights as much because music companies will most likely not go after smaller, personal accounts, like John’s. And they...don’t pay him.

As much as John is open to pivoting careers and joining the team he said he’s happy to continue doing this for fun.

“Every now and then people will comment, ‘I hope you’re getting paid for this.’ It would be awesome to be a paid ambassador, to make some sort of contribution on a freelance basis. But if it doesn’t work out, I’m very happy remaining a member,” he said.

John, if you’re reading this, it’s very noble you want to spread the Peloton gospel, but get your money, sir. As I’ve already written, social media, especially TikTok, has played a critical role in Peloton’s rise in sales and pop culture relevancy over the last year or so. And John is sharing these clips and building the popularity of these instructors for free!

Until next time,

Tanya

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.