This $23 million YouTube music royalties heist is a huge reminder that online copyright is deeply flawed

American video-sharing website Youtube logo is seen displayed on an Android mobile device with a figure of hacker in the background.

Need an easy way to make $23 million? Have you ever considered just claiming music others uploaded to YouTube as your own and collecting the royalties?

That’s basically all two Phoenix men did to swindle Latin music artists like Daddy Yankee and Julio Iglesias out of millions of dollars in royalties, as detailed in a new piece from Billboard last week. 

According to Kristin Robinson of Billboard, Jose “Chenel” Medina Teran and Webster Batista set up a media company called MediaMuv and claimed to own the rights to various Latin music songs and compositions. In total, MediaMuv claimed to own more than 50,000 copyrights since 2017, when Teran and Batista began their scheme.

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In order for MediaMuv to claim these copyrights and collect royalties through YouTube’s Content ID system, the fraudulent company needed to partner with AdRev, a third-party company that has access to YouTube’s CMS and Content ID tools and helps artists manage their digital copyrights. MediaMuv created a few fake documents and provided AdRev with this paperwork in order to prove ownership over the music it claimed. From there, AdRev not only helped MediaMuv collect royalties for those copyrights but also provided Terana and Batista with direct access to YouTube’s CMS so they could claim copyrights on its own. 

Teran and Batista’s four-year-long royalties heist came to an end late last year following an investigation from the IRS. According to Billboard, the two were indicted on “30 counts of conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering and aggravated identity theft.” Teran pleaded not guilty. His trial is in November. Batista, on the other hand, took a plea deal on one count of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy. As a result, Batista provided much of the information about how the two pulled off their scheme.

As Billboard points out, Teran and Batista’s case was especially “brazen.” It’s believed to be one of the “largest YouTube music royalty scams in history.” 

While the size of the heist and the breadth of the scheme may be very unique, it’s certainly a situation that many YouTube content creators have faced before. YouTube’s Content ID system, meant to help creators, has been weaponized by bad faith actors in order to make money off content that isn’t theirs. While some false claims are just mistakes caused by automated systems, the MediaMuv case is a perfect example of how fraudsters are also purposefully taking advantage of digital copyright rules.

YouTube attempts to be cautious with who it provides CMS and Content ID tool access because of how powerful these systems are. As a result, independent creators and artists cannot check for these false copyright claims nor do they have the power to directly act on them. They need to go through a digital rights management company that does have access. And it seems like thieves are doing the same, falsifying documents to gain access to these YouTube tools through these third parties that are “trusted” with these tools by YouTube.

The Billboard piece – which you should check out for even more details on this over-the-top scheme – makes mentions how Content ID scammers typically claim a portion of a song, hoping that with so many songwriters and such, a small percentage of ownership in the music may go by unnoticed. MediaMuv, however, was daring enough to claim copyright over songs in their entirety. While it’s certainly incredible that these two con artists pulled this off for so long, just think about how many more careful scammers are still skimming royalties off of an untold number of artists.

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