Monetizing a Meme (Lit Review, Booze)

Article Reviewed: Monetizing a Meme: YouTube, Content ID, and the Harlem Shake


Using as a case study the 2013 “Harlem Shake” meme phenomenon that produced what the authors call an Internet dance craze, this article examines the “digital sharecropping” practices, specifically by YouTube, that they claim hinders cultural expression, threatens to close the open digital “commons” space and applies copyright laws unfairly. The tension between user rights and creative control and the monetization of content, combined with YouTube’s dominance in identifying so-called copyright material, leaves users who provide User-Generated Content (UGC) at the mercy of technology and unfair exploitation.

Monetizing a Meme: YouTube, Content ID, and the Harlem Shake

Literature Review

By Melinda Booze

YouTube, owned by the search engine giant Google, is a type of “cultural commons” where users, whether amateur or professional, can contribute works that shape and influence popular culture. Video memes, such as “Harlem Shake” are creative endeavors that are remixes, parodies and remakes. This makes “authorship” difficult to identify, creating tension between “open cultural production” and intellectual property claims (Soha and Mcdowell, 2016, p. 5).

A meme is not the same as a digital work that goes viral. The authors used Limor Shifman’s definition of an Internet meme as “’(a) a group of digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form, and/or stance, which (b) were created with awareness of each other, and (c) were circulated, imitated, and/or transformed via the Internet by many users.’” Something that goes viral, on the other hand, is a single work that is shared widely (Soha and Mcdowell, 2016, p. 2).

Ownership of this digital content that is “re-made” as new content, new creative expression, is generally not a concern of users. However, when this content is monetized, someone who claims at least partial ownership, profits from someone else’s labor. In a capitalistic economy, this is considered exploitation. Thus, the terms “digital sharecropping”— coined by Nicholas Carr — and “produsers”— coined by Axel Bruns — are drawing attention to the unbalanced relationship between digital “commons,” such as YouTube, and the massive amount of UGC that create profits for so-called copyright claimants and the platforms but not the content creators (Soha and Mcdowell, 2016, p. 2).

YouTube is legally protected from liability for hosting unauthorized copyrighted material by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. However, when Google bought YouTube in 2006, Google invested tens of millions of dollars into YouTube’s initial Content ID system. Content ID is a technology that identifies even the minutest use of potentially copyrighted material in USC and notifies the copyright holder. Content ID was put into place primarily to settle media companies’ fears of users benefitting from (or detracting from the owners’ benefits) content owned by the media companies. In other words, content that is copyrighted.

Content ID is a system that is purely technological identification, but it is almost impossible to argue with. If it identifies copyrighted content, YouTube notifies the copyright holder, giving the copyright holder power to allow the content, block the content or monetize the content. The monetization is shared by YouTube and the copyright holder.

However, an automated decision-making system like Content ID does not account for possible “fair use” of the copyrighted content “Harlem Shake” exemplifies this possible fair use, user exploitation and potential cultural chill.

Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in a 1989 book to define a “’unit of cultural transmission’” (Soha and Mcdowell, 2016, p. 4). A meme acts like a gene in the transmission of genetic information; a meme is a cultural idea or phenomena that spreads, is replicated or transformed.

Harry Rodrigues, known on YouTube as Baauer, was a 23-year-old American DJ and producer who released the track “Harlem Shake” on May 22, 2012. It was offered as a free download and enjoyed some recognition within its genre. Eight months later, on January 30, 2013, “Filthy Frank”—the persona of a 19-year-old communication major in New York released a video of what would become the “Harlem Shake” dance craze memes.

When the “Harlem Shake” dance memes became an Internet sensation, and YouTube’s Content ID system had identified the musical track as Baauer’s copyrighted content, Baauer, his label and YouTube received millions of dollars in the copyrighted content that Baauer claimed and YouTube monetized. While his track was previously well received in its genre, the monetization didn’t benefit his label (Mad Decent) until the “Harlem Shake” phenomenon. In fact, the infusion of money from the “Harlem Shake” meme crazed saved the label from bankruptcy.

However, Baauer himself has sampled and remixed content from other songs. Once Reddit and Buzzfeed and other Internet influencers jumped on the “Harlem Shake” trend, users started asking questions. Baauer claimed not to know that he had sampled content from two other songs in his title track.  Baauer’s label had to make deals with owners of songs he used in “Harlem Shake.”

This revealed a problem with the Content ID’s system, in addition to “Filthy Frank,” who actually started the meme craze, receiving no monetization or recognition.

Who owns and can monetarily benefit from (or be exploited because of) popular memetic Internet content is an area of authorship that traditional copyright laws may not adequately govern.

The authors propose applying the fair use concept of copyright law as a way for users to generate memetic content based on copyrighted material that shapes and influences culture. Fair use looks at four factors, including the portion of the work used and the effect of the use upon the potential market value (of the copyrighted material). In the case of the “Harlem Shake” meme, it gave market value to Baauer’s musical track that it would not have otherwise received.

The authors identify a problem with applying traditional copyright laws to creative content produced in the digital age. Coupled with YouTube’s automated Content ID system that discourages any appeal or consideration of fair use, examining the result of strictly applying copyright laws and Content ID decisions demonstrates the exploitation of “free” labor and the “chill” on cultural memetic expression in the digital age.


Soha, M., McDowell, Z. M. (2016). Monetizing a Meme: YouTube, Content ID, and the

Harlem Shake.  SM+S: Social Media and Society, January-March 2016, 1-12.

DOI: 10.1177/2056305115623801,


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