By Jillian Dahrooge
Short, one-minute, videos are popping up all over the Internet due to a growing social media obsession. The source is TikTok—a video sharing app that was originally launched in China in 2016. The app gained popularity in the United States once the program merged with another video-sharing app called Musical.ly. There are over 100 million users in the United States alone, with the app being the top non-game download from the Apple and Google stores. While creating these videos is fun for all users, there is a huge legal issue that is being ignored—copyright infringement. Most TikToks are accompanied by music soundtracks or movie scripts, with users lip-syncing the words. However, the owners to these soundtracks or scripts are not gaining any recognition or royalties for the use of their content, a direct violation of copyright law.
David Israelite, the president and CEO of the National Music Publishers’ Association, has publicly discussed the copyright issues with TikTok and the need to scrutinize the platform. Israelite stated, “a large part of [the publishing] industry does not have agreements in place, meaning numerous works continue to be used unlawfully as the platform’s popularity grows exponentially.” This topic has sparked conversations regarding fair use policies and monetization for videos. Due to the growing concern, TikTok updated their legal page to set out the copyright policies that should be adhered to by users. The webpage defines copyright as “a legal right that protects original works of authorship (i.e. music, videos, etc.).” Further, the company states that they do not allow any content that infringes someone’s copyright and any use of such content is a direct violation of the app’s policies. Sanctions for copyright violations include removal of the video and the suspension or termination of the user’s account.
However, TikTok’s legal page isn’t enough to stop users from infringing. The majority of the app’s users are between the ages of 16-24 and likely do not think about the legal consequences of their posts. TikTok’s website states,
If you have questions about copyright law or trademark law, such as questions about whether your content or your use of another person’s name or brand infringes or otherwise violates another person’s rights, you may want to contact an attorney.
But this is a huge problem. The majority of TikTok’s users do not have the capacity or means to hire an attorney. Nor can they truly understand the implications of the videos they are posting without a legal education.
A prominent example of copyright infringement on TikTok, was seen with one of the most popular trends on the app—the Renegade, a dance that was created by a 14-year-old from Atlanta, Georgia. Jalaiah Harmon created these steps in her bedroom, following the beat to the song “Lottery” by Atlanta rapper, K Camp. Her choreography incorporated viral moves like the “whoa” and the “wave.” TikTok users, including celebrities like Lizzo and David Dobrik, posted videos of them dancing the Renegade. Their followers tried the dance as well, leading to a viral trend. Jalaiah claims that she was happy to see her dance take off, but she received zero credit for its creation. She tried to get the word out by commenting on influencers’ pages, asking for a tag or shout out. For the most part, she was ignored and teased.
Robbing creators, like Jalaiah, from credit for their works, can lead to numerous missed opportunities. For example, Jalaiah could receive brand deals and other media contracts due to the Renegade’s popularity. Most importantly, the press from her dance could introduce her to the professional dance and choreography community. While getting valid copyright in a dance is another complex discussion, the Renegade publicized the issues with copyright and social media apps—a topic that needs serious attention.
As an attempted solution, TikTok created a copyright infringement notification process, where people can submit videos to the company that they believe infringe their copyright. The process also allows a counter-notification, for the users to support their actions of using such content. As of 2019, TikTok received 3,345 copyright takedown notices and removed 85% of those requests from the platform. However, it does not seem like this is enough. Users can repost their videos again and copyright owners will need to initiate another notification process. Further, users have gone through creative lengths to go around copyright law, such as singing the songs in their own voice instead of using the original audio. While this is not technically copyright infringement, it interferes with TikTok’s automated system for finding copyrighted content. Overall, moving forward, there needs to be a stricter and more unanimous set of policies for video sharing apps to ensure that creators are getting the credit that they deserve.
Student Bio: Jillian Dahrooge is a second-year law student at Suffolk University Law School who is pursuing a concentration in Intellectual Property. She is also a staff member on the
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are the views of the author alone and do not represent the views of JHTL or Suffolk University Law School.