One week and an onslaught of outrage later, the popular YouTubers have done a complete about-face. Not only will Benny and Rafi Fine discontinue their licensing program, they wrote in a Medium post Monday night, but they will also not pursue infringement claims against other creators who sample their work or borrow the tropes of the “react” genre. In fact, they’ve already deleted the videos in which they explained and promoted the licensing program.
“We realize we built a system that could easily be used for wrong. We are fixing that,” the Fine Brothers wrote. “The reality that trademarks like these could be used to theoretically give companies (including ours) the power to police and control online video is a valid concern, and though we can assert our intentions are pure, there’s no way to prove them.”
The Fines said they had rescinded several trademark applications that helped to fuel the outrage against their React World Program, including trademarks for “React,” “Kids React,” “Elders React” and “Lyric Breakdown.”
From the beginning, the Fines had insisted that licensing was actually a novel business model that would work in the best interests of YouTubers: They compared it to a chain restaurant, in which they started the original company but would help outfit franchisees with logos and support for a share of their profits. But that earned fury, mockery and accusations from other YouTube creators, who claimed the Fines were trying to “own” an entire genre of online videomaking — in direct opposition to the democratic, DIY spirit that many YouTubers have embraced.
Since announcing the program, the Fine Brothers have lost more than 300,000 subscribers, a drop so dramatic that some gleeful critics have streamed the falling numbers in real time. Mega64 released a parody video claiming they were copyrighting videos filmed outside, and also YouTube videos in general, “for the community.” Another creator released a video explaining his new licensing scheme for those who want to include stick figures in their videos: “Stick figures. They’re mine now, and pay me.”
Merlin, an animated fish and wizard from the FilmCow channel on YouTube, starred in his own rather profane “react” video accusing the Fine Brothers of adapting the “corporate” Hollywood model that YouTube presumably grew up to oppose: “You are not different,” Merlin says, “just because you say ‘community’ a bunch and wear plaid shirts.”
FilmCow’s reaction video also highlights another common compliant from YouTubers: A good portion of the Fine Brothers’ “react” series relies on viral content created by other people. At least two of FilmCow’s own series — Charlie the Unicorn and Llamas with Hats — have been the subjects of entire reaction videos from the Fine Brothers.
Ryan Morrison, a lawyer who offered to help YouTubers who wanted to oppose the Fine Brothers’ trademarks, said in an email to The Intersect on Tuesday that he spoke late Monday with Benny Fine, who provided him with proof of the trademark withdrawals. Morrison said that after his offer to help oppose the trademarks, he received a flood of interest that was “unlike anything I’d ever seen.”
Morrison regularly posts to Reddit as VideoGameAttorney. In one such posting last night, Morrison wrote that there’s “no reason to keep our foot on the gas” now that the Fine Brothers have abandoned their licensing scheme and the trademarks. “The internet gets hungry with vengeance, I know, but these are peoples’ lives. People who made a huge mistake, but a mistake they’ve corrected,” he wrote, adding, “They don’t own the react genre, but it would be silly to say they aren’t one of the best at it.”
Trademark expert Roberto Ledesma told The Intersect that the Fine Brothers appeared to be correct in their initial claim that the trademark wouldn’t allow them to stop other YouTubers from making reaction videos as a genre. It would, however, have prevented other creators from branding their content using the trademarked words and phrases. “The real issue, as I see it, is whether the trademark REACT is generic or descriptive for the services they offer,” he said in an email before the Fine Brothers announced the withdrawal of their trademarks.
And though, according to Ledesma, some of the Fine Brothers’ critics were “overreacting” to the whole thing, he said in a follow-up email to The Post that the outcome was “fitting” because the Fine Brothers handled the situation overall so poorly. “It’s their own undoing,” he added. And because the Fine Brothers opted to surrender all of their trademarks related to “react,” including some that were more than three years old, they’ve now raised the question of whether the YouTube creators are “conceding that REACT is a generic term for a Web series in the genre,” Ledesma said.
Although many of the headlines about the Fine Brothers have focused on that trademarking issue, the heart of the dispute between the Fines and the rest of YouTube is likely more cultural. YouTube culture has long embraced riffing, remixing and sharing, both from other creators on the channel and from mainstream media productions. But lately, some of YouTube’s biggest stars have started to look more and more like mainstream entertainment companies and creators. And even if the Fine Brothers, as they say they do, still see themselves as part of the YouTube culture — in opposition to Hollywood-style culture — their licensing scheme seemed, for many smaller creators, to prove that the brothers were no longer one of them.
The Fine Brothers didn’t respond to a request for an interview from The Intersect. But their previous statements indicate that the team was very concerned about bigger media companies copying and profiting off of their brand. For example, in a tweet from early March of last year, the brothers linked to a BuzzFeed video titled “Teens watch ’90s Music Videos for the First time,” and wrote, “This is just going too far @BuzzFeedVideo Sad day for the web community. They clearly are not #teaminternet.” Until it was deleted some time this week, it recirculated as the Fine Brothers controversy spread through the Internet.
It might be the case that the Fines were seeking to protect the branding of their reaction videos from larger companies looking for success on YouTube – but the failure of their solution to the problem indicates just how tricky it can be to identify as a YouTuber while functioning as an entertainment company.
“As YouTube becomes more and more a global community, steps like these have to be taken to protect one’s brand, that’s just the nature of growth and ‘playing with the big boys’ so to speak,” wrote analyst Andy Smith on the industry site ReelSEO. “I’m still unsure of whether this is a good thing for the industry as a whole. Online video is a chance to redefine the media industry and it feels like they are walking the same path that has been walked before, rather than attempting to define online video as something new, different and better.”
With the Fine Brothers’ failure, it remains to be seen whether someone else can come up with a solution more viable to the YouTube audience.
[This post has been updated]