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Confusion among YouTube news channels after copyright claims from Prasar Bharati

Independent journalists with news channels on YouTube have been receiving copyright claims from Prasar Bharati for using sound-bytes from Prime Minister’s speeches, leading to questions around fair usage, copyright infringement, and what can be considered as information in the public domain. Here’s a deep dive exploring such questions and more.

A copyright claim is a rude shock for any YouTuber, be it from an individual artist or a private organisation but imagine journalist Abhisar Sharma’s surprise when he received a copyright claim on his video on India’s Parliamentary proceedings from none other than Doordarshan, Prasar Bharati – the government broadcasting channel that has exclusive rights to cover the Parliament. It had claimed copyrights for two of Sharma’s videos – “Modi avoids answering questions! Sansad turned into a Chunaavi Sabha! Opposition’s Rahul [Gandhi] ridiculed” and “Rahul Gandhi’s harshest comment on BJP-RSS | Rahul Gandhi | NDA Vs INDIA” for using during National Handlooms Day Celebrations and his visit to Rajasthan.

“Suddenly one day I got two emails from YouTube. They said I won’t be earning anything out of these videos [because of copyright claims from Prasar Bharati]. Probably, they were scanning my channel to see where else I’ve used Prime Minister Modi’s sound byte. So, what I did was wherever I had used his sound byte in the last 4-5 months, I removed them. My concern was receiving a copyright strike. So, I chopped off Prime Minister’s sound-byte from everywhere,” he said, calling the whole incident “baffling” and “tragic.”

Sharma’s YouTube channel has a following of 2.92 million subscribers and currently has 1.3 thousand videos. After working at Zee, ABP, BBC, and NDTV, he moved to independent journalism and earns his income with his YouTube channel. In the About section, he describes his channel as “the platform where we hold the powerful accountable. The powerful will be questioned when the Media forgets to do its Dharma.”

Meanwhile, when MediaNama asked Sharma about his opinion on the situation, he said:

“Already BJP spokespersons don’t talk to us and now I can’t use my own Prime Minister’s sound-bytes. This is such a tragedy that someone is making copyright claims on what the Prime Minister is saying. There are so many government functions in the country. How can they be under copyright? Yet under law, they can be copyrighted.”

The Copyright Act of 1957 is a legal framework that governs the protection of intellectual property rights in India. The Act grants creators and authors exclusive rights to their literary, artistic, and musical works, allowing them to control how their creations are used, reproduced, distributed – and yes, it even provides copyright protection to content produced by the Indian government.

The law recognizes the government as the copyright owner for works created or published by government employees in the course of their official duties. This means the government holds the exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, and display these works, and it can authorize or restrict their use by others.

Why is copyright such a big concern for independent journalists?

While speaking to MediaNama, Sharma expressed that the worst part of a copyright notice, even a copyright claim, is its hit on the channel’s earnings. He said, “They were sharing my revenue. I had stopped earnings from my videos because of [the claim]. My video was of 11-12 minutes. I use 20 seconds of the Prime Minister’s speech, which is publicly available,  and for god’s sake, he’s the Prime Minister! [And Prasar Bharati says] that because of the copyright claim I can’t earn anything out of that video… Can you imagine? I can’t use my Prime Minister’’s sound bytes on my platform[emphasis added].”

Regarding the decision to remove all Prasar Bharati-related bytes, Sharma is not the only independent journalist to have reacted in this manner. Other independent journalists with news channels on YouTube have also flagged the receipt of copyright claims from Prasar Bharati. As mentioned by Sharma, these claims affect video monetization on YouTube and thus have sparked considerable panic within the fraternity.

Many told MediaNama that their first reaction to the claims was to remove all Prasar Bharati-related video clips from their videos. As may be imagined, this was done begrudgingly with almost everyone asking why videos that have public relevance are not allowed to be used by independent journalists.

“The Prime Minister’s speech is [a matter of] a public discussion, so it should be allowed [to be used by journalists]. But then why are political websites like the BJP’s social media channel allowed to use it?” a senior journalist, who received three to four strikes from Prasar Bharati told MediaNama. When asked about details of the copyright claim, the journalist said his videos had used 30-40 seconds of the Prime Minister’s speeches from various instances like ‘Pariksha pe Charcha.’ The journalist has since removed all such video clips from their channel.

In recent years, veteran journalists have left their positions in media agencies to work as independent journalists. With no major organisation to fund their reportage, they depend on the videos put up on YouTube and other social media platforms to generate revenue. One such journalist, Ravish Kumar – formerly the Senior Executive Editor and Prime Time anchor at NDTV – told MediaNama that YouTube is fairly reliable in terms of revenue, but there are hurdles that channels face when it comes to avoiding copyright issues.

“We [Kumar and his editorial team] never use Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha videos because people have told me that there’s no thikana of their copyright. Even on the Lok Sabha website, the rules say that we can’t use it. But there’s no clarity on ownership. We [independent journalists] worry: “what if there’s a copyright strike?” YouTube should understand this situation we are in. It should make a list of which videos, which channels it recognises as public channels and that their information is public,” said Kumar.

Comparing YouTube with other social media platforms like Facebook, Kumar said the former is much more reliable.

“I get five million views on Facebook but zero money. There is no transparency. You could say YouTube is bit clearer this and gives more money… I sometimes wonder where I’d be working if YouTube wasn’t there,” he said with a laugh.

Kumar also raised questions as to how and why Parliament-related proceedings are under copyright, when they should be available to the general public. Even regarding G20, Kumar and his team found that only authorized journalists are allowed to use G20 footage. Since independent journalists were not recognized by the G20, they were barred from using any G20 content in their videos.

“We’re alert about notices. But this is a big censorship issue to say that we cannot use the Prime Minister’s old bytes, his activities, his speech during G20, which are important things. This is a huge hindrance for us. Before using any material, we’re faced with a long list [of instructions] on what not to do. So, there is no clarity on using Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha or Doordarshan videos. Some people say they use [the videos]. But we have not found any document that says the content is copyright-free, unconditional and that use is allowed,” he said.

Can government copyright be challenged?

According to Pranesh Prakash, an Affiliated Fellow at Yale Law School with research work in copyright reform, India’s copyright law was amended in 2010 under Section 52(1)(a)(iii) to list various exceptions known as “fair dealings” to copyright infringement. These exceptions included “reporting of current events and current affairs, including the reporting of a lecture delivered in public.”

“So, it’s clear that this kind of usage [for coverage of current events/affairs] is not a copyright violation under Indian law. Even under the US law, where they don’t have these kinds of fair dealing exceptions and specific exceptions, they have a general fair-use exception. It is very clear that for this kind of news report, there is an exception provided for this kind of usage. It is not an infringement in the US to be using clips by journalists,” said Prakash.

When pointed out that Prasar Bharati has a copyright policy on its website that does not include news reportage under its fair-use, Prakash said that “Insofar as there are things that are covered by the Copyright Act, the policy is completely redundant. If the policy covers something that the Copyright Act doesn’t in section 52, then it just adds to the Copyright Act[‘s] list of non-infringing uses… it would expand, it would provide a license it can’t restrict [emphasis added]. So if it is more restrictive than 52 of the Copyright Act, then 52 of the Copyright Act would prevail.”

This leads us to the next question: What is Prasar Bharati’s rationale in sending copyright claims to journalists on YouTube?

Article continues below ⬇, you might also want to read:

A game of he said, she said

When asked by MediaNama about how Prasar Bharati selects the channels to send copyright claims to, Gaurav Dwivedi, current CEO of Prasar Bharati, said the copyright claims are handled by YouTube as per their policy.

When asked about Prasar Bharati’s involvement in the issuance of these emails, Dwivedi said, “[Who gets these mails] is decided by YouTube’s algorithm.” Following this, Dwivedi declined to speak further on call.

MediaNama also reached out to YouTube for a response on Dwivedi’s claim. To this, YouTube said it does not send out copyright claims to anyone without receipt of a formal complaint from an individual or organisation.

“It’s not up to YouTube to decide who “owns the rights” to content, which is why we give copyright holders tools to make copyright claims and uploaders tools to dispute claims that are made incorrectly… When a copyright holder notifies us of a video that infringes on their copyright, we remove the content promptly in accordance with the law, and terminate the accounts of repeat offenders,” said a YouTube spokesperson.

Shashi Shekhar, former CEO of Prasar Bharati from 2017 to 2022, told MediaNama that such copyright claims are very common.

“From a YouTube standpoint, it is very common because monetisation of the content happens if third parties are monetizing content that has been created by Doordarshan. I think it’s a very legitimate thing to send them strikes or notice,” said Shekhar.

Regarding the exception clause in India’s copyright clause, Shekhar said that individuals with legitimate reasons to use the content should petition to the public broadcasters for permission. Further, when asked why users have to ask permission for content created by taxpayers’ money, Shekhar claimed that content produced by Doordarshan or All India Radio is, in fact, not funded by the government.

“It is a wrong notion that the content is made by taxpayer money. That is not the case… Doordarshan and All India Radio have to generate their own revenues to run their operations. Taxpayers don’t pay for it. So hence it becomes important for Doordarshan and All India Radio to monetize the content that they create. It’s no different from any other content creator in that sense. So these are legitimate steps,” he said.

However, a ‘Detailed Demand for Grants’ by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting for 2023-24 shows that Prasar Bharati has been allocated funds by the government for Broadcasting Infrastructure and Network Development. This allocation of funds in the document goes as far back as 2021-22. The details of the allocation can be seen below:

While old reportage does show that the Information and Broadcasting Ministry was refusing funds to the organisation during Shekhar’s tenure (between 2017 and 2018), the above data shows that Prasar Bharati does get its primary funding from the government.

On publication of this story Shekhar told MediaNama, “These funds are meant for infrastructure and other capital projects, and not for running operations. Operational expenditure is met through commercial revenues generated from advertising, infrastructure leasing and DD FreeDish DTH slot auctions.”

MediaNama emailed the following questions to Dwivedi:

  • How does Prasar Bharati select the channels to whom it sends copyright claims?
  • How many teams of how many members are involved in the process of sending out copyright claims?
  • Are copyright claims only sent to online or independent content creators or are they sent to TV channels as well?
  • Should content funded by tax-payers’ money be free for use for reporting and/ or satire for the citizens of India? What is Prasar Bharati’s stand on this idea?
  • If the answer to the previous question is no, why does Prasar Bharati feel such content should not be in the public domain?
  • Approximately, how many copyright claims were sent out by Prasar Bharati in 2023?

A similar set of questions was sent to Jawhar Sircar, former CEO of Prasar Bharati, during his tenure from 2012 to 2016. He replied:

“I don’t remember making copyright claims for TV feed during my period.”

Further, we have filed an RTI asking similar questions. As of the date of publication, MediaNama has not received any response from either sources. This article will be updated once we have responses via RTI or from Prasar Bharati.

Additionally, we sent to YouTube the following questions:

  • How does YouTube select the channels to whom it sends copyright warnings/ strikes?
  • How have the channels [names of journalists who have received copyright claims] violated fair-usage?
  • Approximately, how many copyright claims have been raised by Prasar Bharati in 2023? Against which YouTube channels have these claims been issued?

YouTube has said it is looking into these queries. MediaNama will update this story in case when they respond to the queries.

Why is it important to establish Prasar Bharati’s right to a copyright?

The copyright law grants as much copyright protection for what the government creates as there is for anything any private entity creates. Prakash explained this is because India has inherited its copyright law from the UK.

“Now, if you think about this, if you think about the different reasons justifications that exist for copyright being provided, none of those justifications apply to government created works. So, by providing copyright, you’re not encouraging the government to create more writing. The government is going to create it regardless. There is no incentive being provided by copyright. Further, whatever the government’s created, we’ve already paid for by taxpayers. So why do taxpayers have to pay for it a second time to get access is unclear. From every angle, whether you look at it from a theory of justification of copyright existing, or whether you look at it from a licensing perspective, it makes zero sense for government created works to be either copyrighted or for the government to demand licensing fees for it,” said Prakash.

Impact of the copyright claims: As mentioned before, journalists struggle to earn from their videos on YouTube due to copyright claims. Most are now forced to resort to transcripts of Prime Minister Modi’s speeches or Parliament coverage to provide the government’s view. Reacting to this Sharma said to MediaNama:

“If I have used 30-40 seconds of the Prime Minister’s video in my 10-minute show, then how can you [Prasar Bharati] claim my total monetization? Maybe this is a YouTube thing.”

Max Maharashtra struggles with YouTube policies

Copyright issues were not the only times journalists have faced challenges on YouTube. Around February 2023, Ravindra Ambekar, Founder of Max Maharashtra – a Marathi news channel on YouTube with 548 thousand subscribers and 23 thousand videos – discovered that his channel had been hacked and that the news coverage was replaced with porn. This was the second time the account was hacked and as usual he took help from the platform to regain access to the account.

However, on getting back the account, he discovered that around 200-250 of their videos were labelled as “inappropriate content” and blocked. These were videos pertaining to Vidhan Sabha discussions relating to women farmers, Parliamentary debates, blogs of Nikhil Wagle, journalist and Consulting Editor of Max Maharashtra, known for criticising government authorities.

“This is the first time we heard of Parliament debate being inappropriate. If a platform like YouTube terms such content “inappropriate,” it’s the biggest hit to our democracy. This means the platform won’t let us stream parliamentary proceedings,” said Ambekar.

His biggest contention was about the fact that YouTube simply removed the videos without flagging them to him or his team. Moreover, he claimed that he had filed a police complaint against the hacking but received information that YouTube had refused to share information with the police. As a result, the police closed the case.

“I feel social impact stories like questions relating to women farmers, Dalits, Budget in the Parliament, Vidhan Sabha – if they are going to be termed inappropriate then perhaps YouTube should just close our channel. Them just deleting videos at will is anti-democratic. Ultimately, the Indian media putting forward issues is part of the democratic process,” said Ambekar.

MediaNama reached out to YouTube with the following questions:

  • How does YouTube define “inappropriate content”? Why were Max Maharashtra news channel’s videos on women farmers and Vidhan Sabha coverage flagged and removed for “inappropriate content”?
  • Is it true that YouTube refused to share information related to the hacker to Indian police? Why did YouTube choose to decline the request?

A YouTube official said the aforementioned videos are being reviewed by its team. This article will be updated once we receive a response.

What is the next course of action for journalists?

Prakash maintains that as long as independent journalists receiving copyright claims prove that the concerned video/audio clips used are for fair-use, they have not committed any copyright infringement or taken any action deserving a copyright claim.

In his article ‘Copyrights and copywrongs,’ Prakash also said that “when copyright doesn’t serve public welfare, states must intervene, and the law must change to promote human rights, the freedom of expression and to receive and impart information, and to protect authors and consumers.

“The Indian government needs to redeem itself by freeing governmental works, including the scientific research it funds, the archives of All India Radio, the movies that it produces through Prasar Bharati, and all other tax-payer funded works, and by returning them to the public domain, where they belong.”

However, for individuals dependent on social media-driven income, using these arguments to assert their rights in these copyright situations is easier said than done. Many of them, including Max Maharashtra, are considering sending a joint representation to the government.

“We approached DIGIPUB Foundation and we’re thinking of having a common case with those who have suffered similarly [a restriction on their speech online] and making a representation to the government,” said Ambekar.

However, when voicing their opinions to MediaNama, many of the journalists seem to have arrived at the same conclusion as Sharma, which is:

“Until this [government copyright issue] is challenged, I don’t think there’s a solution.”

Note: The section containing Shekhar’s comments after the data of BIND funds was edited at 4:33 PM on September 22, 2023 following editorial inputs.

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This post is released under a CC-BY-SA 4.0 license. Please feel free to republish on your site, with attribution and a link. Adaptation and rewriting, though allowed, should be true to the original.

Written By

I'm interested in the shaping and strengthening of rights in the digital space. I cover cybersecurity, platform regulation, gig worker economy. In my free time, I'm either binge-watching an anime or off on a hike.

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.



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