Far-Right ‘Free Speech’ Fundamentalists Keep Using YouTube’s Copyright Claim System To Try To Silence CriticsImage via YouTube Tech Features YouTube
The YouTube channel Fundie Fridays@FundieFridays shouldn’t work. Each Friday, Jennifer Sutphin, Jen to her viewers, a cotton candy-haired self-identified atheist, releases a long-form video essay in which she discusses a different Christian fundamentalist. The videos, which are full of snark and skepticism, have become something of a cinematic universe themselves, often highlighting the overlapping ideologies and affiliations of key players.
Recently, Sutphin’s partner James Bryant, joined the fold, making regular videos on the channel covering conservative American politicians with evangelical ties. The channel occupies a bizarre niche covering heady topics, yet by early 2022 the pair had become a constant for their nearly 300,000 subscribers. Then this summer, they disappeared.
On June 17, Sutphin and Bryant announced via Instagram that their channel had received a copyright strike, a sanction administered by YouTube when a copyright owner files a claim that their protected content is being used illegally. The shocks continued when the couple shared that the late-night strike, which arrived in Sutphin’s inbox at 3 am on June 16, came from one of the very subjects the channel covered, Christian semi-celebrity, Lawson Bates.
Best known for his family’s close friendship with the much-embattled Duggars of TLC’s 19-Kids-and-Counting, and their own similar show, Bringing Up Bates, Bates is now an aspiring country musician. A video Sutphin made covering his song, “Like the Rain,” constituted copyright infringement, he claimed.
Posted in February of this year, the Sutphin’s video alternates between shots of a pink-cowboy-hat-wearing Sutphin running through the snow holding a hobby horse — the children’s toy made of a stick topped with a plush horse head — and footage of her sitting in front of a green screen pretending to play the guitar. The vocals, Sutphin’s own, have been autotuned and distorted almost beyond recognition, and a guitar track, which she added, twangs along. Both Sutphin and Bryant were confident that the video would be taken for what it was: a parody. The moment Bates’ claim was filed, however, YouTube removed it.
In Sutphin’s comments, fans of Fundie Fridays, dubbed Jennonites by Sutphin, were quick to point out that the strike ran counter to the freedom of speech-related rhetoric Bates has shared on his own social media channels.
“I thought he was for freedom of speech? Obviously a hypocrite,” one fan commented. “It’s always ‘Free speech for me but not for thee’ with these types of ‘people,’” wrote another.
Within a week Bates struck the channel again, this time for a video profiling the full Bates family and its members.
Having received Bates’ email along with the second strike, Bryant appealed to Bates directly noting that Bates was exploiting a YouTube system “well known for being fraught with abuse and prioritizing the desires of fraudulent claimers (like [him]self) over the rights and needs of content creators,” and noting that free speech is not one-sided.
There was radio silence on Bates’ side, but three days later, a third strike came—this time for Sutphin’s Duck Dynasty video, which included a brief clip of the music video for Bates’ song “Past the Past,” starring Duck Dynasty’s Sadie Robertson.
Sutphin and Bryant maintained that their content was covered under fair use, parody, and commentary, but the message bearing the third YouTube strike bore an ominous message: Your account is scheduled to be terminated.
With both Sutphin and Bryant now working on the channel full-time, the threat of deletion meant they could soon be without any income. To delay termination they filed a counterclaim, writing that Bates was striking them not for using his work, but rather in an attempt to silence his critics.
“I was very proud it allowed 2000 characters we used 1990,” Bryant said. “We went right up to the line.”
Stuphin worried this might be their last chance to save the channel. “I was just in the little YouTube box [filing the counterclaims] like, ‘Please, he’s trying to take my channel because he doesn’t like me because I make videos about fundamentalists,’” she recalled.
In addition to Fundie Fridays, Sutphin is aware of several other channels that received copyright claims from Bates, she said; some related to use of material featuring his family or his music, others for including footage of Bates and one of his brothers at a rally in Washington, D.C. on January 6th, 2021. Bates maintains that they were present only for a “peaceful public event at the Ellipse, and not at the Capitol buildings.”
Bates’ use of the YouTube copyright system is not unique, however, as claims of public figures filing spurious claims to censor detractors have been increasing. YouTuber Rachel Oates, a creator who often uses her eponymous channel to critique far-right and misogynistic media, has received claims from multiple individuals of whom she has been critical. Oates has chronicled the strike and appeals process on her channel’s community tab.
Describing the most recent claim filed against her, Oates wrote, “I appealed the claim because my video is absolutely classed as fair use: it’s transformative and uses the original content for the purpose of providing examples for commentary and critique. They rejected the appeal. I appealed again. Today they rejected it again and have requested that my video be taken down from YouTube entirely which means my educational and important video will be removed, I won’t make any money for my work, and my channel will receive a copyright strike which puts it at risk.”
Having witnessed other creators’ struggle with the copyright claims system and experiencing firsthand the seeming impossibility of reaching a real human rather than an automated email to plead their case, the Fundie Fridays duo began to panic. An email from YouTube did not convince them that anyone had reviewed their case but did inform them that Bates had 14 days to file a lawsuit, or the strikes would be dropped.
During that time the claimed videos were temporarily removed, and the pair could not post, use their account, or view their own content. Without access to their catalog, the couple feared they would lose not only the videos Bates had struck, but everything they’d made in the past several years.
Once again, Fundie Fridays fans took to Bates’ social media, commenting on his posts and tagging him in their own in an attempt to get his attention. None received a reply, but Bates blocked each one.
At the end of 14 days, Bates’ claims still stood, but no lawsuit had been filed. Just as mysteriously as the strikes came, they disappeared.
Fundie Fridays was reinstated, and though the experience was a frightening one, the resulting outpour of support drove followers to the couple’s Patreon in droves, enabling Sutphin and Bryant to make more of the content they love. And while they can’t be sure they won’t face similar battles in the future, the couple feel like their channel is stronger than ever.
“I don’t think this is the last we’ve heard of the ‘free speech’ warriors, but we’re more ready for them than we were the first time,” Bryant said.” So good luck.”