Facebook’s ‘Freebooting’ Piracy Problem Just Cost Casey Neistat 20 Million Views

Lingering theft issues anger video creators

Headshot of Christopher Heine

Casey Neistat, who has 1.5 million YouTube subscribers, recently created a fun Halloween video called "Aladdin in Real Life" with his friend, Jesse Wellens, and they quickly garnered more than 10 million views. The two-minute clip took weeks to complete, as the duo spent significant cash on costumes and orchestrated a high-tech video shoot while interloping through the busy daytime streets of Manhattan, N.Y.

But then they ran into a problem known as "freebooting," which entails republishing videos on social sites without the consent of the folks who made the clips. In essence, it's a practice of intellectual-property theft that's plagued Facebook more than other digital platforms—PR-wise, at least—in recent months thanks to a few whistle-blowers.

"I spent roughly a week issuing take downs on Facebook—a convoluted process," Neistat told Adweek. "I crowdsourced the process of finding the freebooters because there is no way to search Facebook. In all, I took down well over 50 different posts—[which was] not nearly all of them. I simply gave up after a while. I anecdotally kept track of the view counts—over 20 million views on the videos I took down."

That costs Neistat part of his livelihood. "This is in every sense a job, and each video is an investment wherein success—viewership—we will see a return," he said.

Facebook drew criticism this summer from content creators for not doing enough to combat freebooting. The Menlo Park, Calif.-based tech giant responded in August with a blog post acknowledging the problem while stating that it had some tools—which Neistat alluded to with criticism—for preventing it. The company stated then that it is developing new programs for sussing out video thieves, though the timeline for such a release hasn't been disclosed.

The controversy received an autumnal reboot on Tuesday, when YouTube channel Kurzgesagt (which translates from German to "In a Nutshell") got into the mix. Kurzgesagt periodically publishes videos that attempt to explain a complex subject in five minutes, and it's attracted 1.4 million YouTube subscribers in the past couple of years while occasionally covering tech (last week's edition was called "What Is Light?").

This week's submission, dubbed "How Facebook is Stealing Billions of Views," drew 1.2 million YouTube views by Thursday morning and more than 4,500 comments. The piece accuses Facebook of turning a blind eye to the freebooting epidemic in order to draw views and ad impressions for its own financial gain—at the cost of content creators.

"The video demonstrates more examples of the immaturity in a large part of the video market," said Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, a trade organization that represents digital-media brands. "High-quality video that attracts consumers and brand advertisers needs to be protected for the benefit of all. Market makers like Facebook should be further ahead on this."

Brian Selander is evp of Whistle Sports, a trick-shot sports publisher that regularly generates millions of views on Facebook. While Selander lauded the social network's ability to help startups like his gain traction in the marketplace, he recognized the problem at hand. 

"Our creators can easily see their hard work rack up a few million views in a few hours, although freebooting means it's sometimes under other people's names," he said. "For brands involved in content, freebooting means that they're probably getting a significant number of views that they just aren't able to capture. But it also means that they don't know what that content is next to, how it's been altered and what kind of engagement they're getting from it. So, stronger content [identification] helps that as well." 

Selander added, "Facebook's been clear to us that they understand the need for a strong content ID system. I certainly believe them when they say it's a priority."

Indeed, Facebook, which declined comment, has seemingly been trying to properly align with the issue, working with an audio-recognition tech player called Audible Magic for the past few months. They are attempting to create the highly effective performing ID system that video marketers like Selander are asking for. Right now, the two companies are utilizing technology designed to let content creators identify when their videos are reuploaded to Facebook pages, profiles and groups. 

Neistat claimed it isn't working nearly well enough.

"Facebook has a team of the greatest technologists in the world," he said. "They can crank out entirely new products in a matter of weeks. But here we are, 8 billion views a day later, and there is nothing in place to protect content creators. Beyond a technological solution—something YouTube has had in place for years—there's a more pragmatic one: Punish the freebooters."

YouTube deletes channels that are caught freebooting a third time. "That is a very, very serious penalty," Neistat said. "On Facebook, the punishment is nil. The reward, the booty that is from your stealing of content, is increased engagement, and even after a video is removed, you get to keep that. Why wouldn't people steal in such an environment?"

Facebook, as a video-sharing platform, has taken off in recent years. In its defense, building a comprehensive video-management system is arduous for any social platform, especially this one, which now has more than 1 billion daily users. And fraudulent hackers are hard to contain, as they use code to find ways around detection systems.

Chris Tuff, 22squared's evp and director of business development, defended Facebook, suggesting that intellectual property in the form of videos has always been vulnerable on the Internet.

"This same thing happened back then when people ripped videos from YouTube and uploaded to Ebaumsworld and Break.com," he said. "Facebook has vowed to crack down on these videos as well as implement a better revenue sharing program with creators. This will iron itself out as Facebook takes back the reins on this."

At the same time, YouTube claims to have spent tens of millions of dollars developing an 8-year-old system called Content ID, which lets content creators track, block and/or monetize when their videos are shared without permission. The Alphabet-owned video platform said in late 2014 that it had paid creators around $1 billion because of Content ID.

Now, it appears Facebook is playing catch-up. Until it gets there, expect the occasional outcry from YouTube vloggers like Hank Green, whose Aug. 3 post on Medium, "Theft, Lies and Facebook Video," really goosed the narrative. 

So much so that Matt Pakes, Facebook product manager, answered Green's post with a Medium entry of his own, stating it's a "significant technical challenge at our scale." Pakes also wrote, "As video continues to grow rapidly on Facebook, we're actively exploring further solutions to help IP owners identify and manage potential infringing content, tailored for our unique platform and ecosystem."

Facebook's news feed algorithm reportedly produces more appearances for Facebook native videos than other forms of content, including, of course, clips that are born from rival YouTube. With that in mind, Neistat described instances when he recently communicated with video-stealing culprits via email only to discover how small-time most were. Ripping off the Facebook video, they told him, would ensure that more people would view it.

"They explained, apologetically, that they just wanted to share the video, and there was no other way to do it," Neistat said. "They said they couldn't post the YouTube [clip] because no one would see it [on Facebook] … so they ripped and shared it."

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.