Internet Outrage™ strikes again.
Apology Index could keep busy 24/7 solely tracking apologies by people who have in some way gotten on the wrong side of the Online Internet Mob™. Sometimes it’s a Twitter Mob™, sometimes a Reddit Mob™, sometimes a Facebook Mob™, sometimes all of the above. (Though rarely is there a LinkedIn Mob™).
In this case, coming late to the party and never having heard of this online outrage until it was all over, AI if this is a case of outrage overreach™ or trademark overreach™ or a little of both. But let’s dive in.
You know those “[Members of X Group] reacts to [Something Members of X Group Would Normally Never Pay Attention To Because It Really Isn’t Targeted To Them Anyway] videos” that friends post in your Facebook feed? Yes, we’ve all seen them. Here’s an example: Elders React to Batman vs Superman Trailer.
Turns out there is an entire YouTube channel full of these, produced by brothers Benny and Rafi Fine aka The Fine Brothers. Obviously they had a clever idea and have put a lot of work into making dozens, if not dozens of dozens, of these videos, which are very popular and widely shared. 14 million subscribers. 4 billion views. I’m sure they’re raking it in on their share of the revenue from the annoying ads you have to watch before you can watch the video you clicked to see. Good so far.
Alas, the Fine Brothers had the fine idea of extending their online empire, as Wired UK reports here:
The idea, announced on 26 January, was to allow other channels to create videos on different themes, but with similar styles and some shared elements to their own clips, while sharing revenue on a ‘React World’ channel and avoiding the possibility of DCMA takedowns by the brothers.
“By offering our shows and trademarks to the world, we will expand the Fine Family by leaps and bounds globally, and support content that can make a positive impact around the world, which is the cornerstone of what the REACT franchise has been for over five years,” the Brothers said in a statement at the time.
Well, that doesn’t sound so bad. Except for the DMCA takedown part. Everyone hates the DMCA except Greedy Media Bigshots™, who love using it to stomp on some adorable little girl’s Strawberry Shortcake fan page.
Oh wait, there’s more:
The Fine Brothers also filed for a trademark on the word “react” in July 2015, that would have given them some control over the term when used in relation to online video.
Yeah, that’s where they went wrong. We can stipulate that 99% of the people in the world don’t understand trademark law at all. Every year, like clockwork, there is at least one Internet Outrage™ about some evil, greedy, soulless corporation (or a clever huckster) trademarking some ordinary word. As in, “Oh no! EvilCorp wants to control the word Love! We have to stop them!”
So without bothering to look up the Fine Brothers’ trademark application, I’m reasonably certain they weren’t planning to demand a royalty anytime anyone anywhere reacted to anything. (A much better plan would be to patent sunlight.)
But apparently they did want to assert some ownership interest in the format of making videos of people reacting to things.
Unfortunately, the internet (and the Fine Brothers subscribers) had an issue with the plan, which is largely that reaction videos of every type and description, far from being exclusive to one channel, have been a cornerstone of online content for almost a decade.
Yeah, you might as well trademark “Videos of Kids Doing Cute Things” and “Puppies and Kittens Playing Together”.
Cue the Online Internet Mob™
The backlash on YouTube and Reddit was immediate, with a seemingly spontaneous mass “unsubscribe” effort seeing the brothers’ channel dip from 14,080,000 subscribers down to 13,789,00 — a process documented live, obviously, on YouTube.
After a brief holding action, he Fine Brothers capitulated with the following apology posted on Medium:
We’re here to apologize.
We realize we built a system that could easily be used for wrong. We are fixing that. 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.
We have decided to do the following:
1. Rescind all of our “React” trademarks and applications.*
2. Discontinue the React World program.
3. Release all past Content ID claims.**
The concerns people have about React World are understandable, and that people see a link between that and our past video takedowns, but those were mistakes from an earlier time. It makes perfect sense for people to distrust our motives here, but we are confident that our actions will speak louder than these words moving forward.
This has been a hard week. Our plan is to keep making great content with the help of our amazing staff. Thank you for your time and for hearing us out.
Benny and Rafi Fine
Apology Index Instant Apology Analysis™
Let’s dig in, shall we?
For starters “We’re here to apologize” isn’t actually, technically an apology, is it? “We apologize” or “We’re sorry” would be more on point. So right off, AI smells a possible wishy-washy apology.
Next paragraph is more mush. “We theoretically, possibly, maybe could use our system for evil and we can’t prove that you should trust us.” Okay, but what exactly are you “here to apologize” for? It’s unclear that they think they’ve done anything wrong. (Actually, it is clear to AI that they don’t think they have.)
Next, they list specific actions they have taken to correct the situation. Corrective action is an important element of an effective and sincere apology. Though again, it does help if there is an actual apology.
Then they promise to do better going forward, and thank you for your time.
Bottom line, this is an exercise in PR damage control and an attempt to appease the howling Online Internet Mob™, including all those people who unsubscribed from their cash cow YouTube channel. AI suspects the Fine Brothers don’t truly believe they owe anyone an apology, but they recognize they have to do something to stop the bleeding of their brand.
There is little to no contrition here. In truth, there may be no reason for any. Filing a trademark is a routine business practice. But when your trademark involves a common word you do run the risk of popular incomprehension of trademark law bringing the pitchforks to your door. Likewise, trying to claim ownership of something basic like “reaction videos”, “making up for something you’ve done wrong by or “making a delicious sandwich by placing something delicious between two slices of bread” will bite you every time.
Did the apology stop the bleeding?
Wired UK suggests not:
On Reddit’s /r/videos forum, where much of the rage and momentum around the story has been concentrated, users commented that they would not forgive the Fine Brothers, or trust them not to make similar attempts to control content more broadly in the future.
Indeed, one quoted Reddit user is totally on to them:
“They don’t mean it, they just hope that saying “we apologise” and doing a bit in the right direction, without even admitting their wrong, is enough to stop users from leaving,” said another.