Escape the Algorithm

Chasing YouTube's Biggest Copyright Troll Down the Rabbit Hole

Someone appears to be using the names of music in Russia to claim copyright on American audio clips

January 26, 2023
Escape the Algorithm

Chasing YouTube's Biggest Copyright Troll Down the Rabbit Hole

Someone appears to be using the names of music in Russia to claim copyright on American audio clips

January 26, 2023
4 Min
Escape the Algorithm
A look inside the culture and commerce driving the most remote corners of the internet—through the eyes of its finest explorers.

Earlier this month, a TikTok user named @slamuri published a video warning users that their viral audio could be copyrighted by an artist named "Bob Tik" without them knowing. "I was a very small creator when it happened to me. To those who watched this I greatly thank you. I am willing to assist any way that I can," @slamuri wrote in the caption of a since-deleted video.

@slamuri told his followers to see if their own audio clips had been stolen by Bob Tik and accused the mysterious musical artist of being a copyright troll.

Simply put, a copyright troll looks for content that isn't explicitly copyrighted, oftentimes something being used under fair use — a meme, a viral audio, parts of a video — and attempts to enforce a copyright on it. And the automated copyright protection services running inside of platforms such as YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Music can make this easier than ever.

The problem is these platforms, for the most part, don't know what is a legitimate release and what isn't, nor do they have fail-safe ways of verifying who is uploading content to them and from where. And this gets even fuzzier when dealing with international artists. For instance, the American emo musician Owen has shared a Spotify artist page with an Eastern European rap group with the same name on and off for years. Even I myself had a band that, at one point, shared a Spotify profile with a Mexican rock band with the same name. 

And the deeper you go down the Bob Tik rabbit hole, the more likely it seems like that's what's happening here, but across several platforms all at once. Someone appears to be using real artists and real labels in Russia to claim copyrights on other people's audio files.

If you try and find Bob Tik on YouTube, you'll get a topic page with 239 followers. And topic pages are auto-generated, unlike channels. When a user uploads content to a YouTube channel, they fill out the name, the description, and metadata themselves. Topic pages pull in those details from third party services, such as DistroKid or CD Baby, and the platform tries to create a listing automatically.

And Bob Tik's topic page is being updated almost daily with different versions of the same audio clips, played at different speeds, organized into short playlists. Most of the audio clips on the page are short looping instrumentals with similarly styled cover art: a stock image or solid color background with text of the "song" title written over it in a simple font. 

Earlier Bob Tik uploads also feature photos taken from around the web with generic text written over them. One Bob Tik upload from last year, "They Tryna Be Subway Surf," uses a DeviantArt picture first uploaded in 2015 as its cover art that seems like it was just pulled off Google Image Search. Even weirder, while the audio is a generic EDM loop, the title is of a different viral trending TikTok audio from last May. And that's not the only video like that. There's another Bob Tik upload from last year titled, "My Money Don't Jiggle Jiggle It Folds," a viral audio clip featuring documentarian Louis Theroux. 

The first user to notice something was off about the "Bob Tik" topic page was a YouTube creator named KinetiK001. His channel is best known as the home of the viral "DOOR STUCK! DOOR STUCK!" clip, which is a 34-second Counter-Strike video from 2007. "DOOR STUCK! DOOR STUCK!" has been watched over 26 million times and has become a meme in the pro gaming community.

Last July, KinetiK001 made a video explaining that his channel was demonetized by YouTube and while it was demonetized another user named "Bob Tik" was able to swoop in and claim copyright on the audio in his video. YouTube listed the audio as coming from a song called "Stone Door" by the artist Bob Tik and said it was added to YouTube's audio copyright database by a company called Every Music. 

Less than a week later, the Bob Tik copyright was dropped and the rights to "DOOR STUCK! DOOR STUCK!" were returned to KinetiK001 and "Stone Door" by Bob Tik was removed from the platform. According to 3kliksphilip, a YouTube channel with over a million subscribers that picked up the story at the time, the "Stone Door" upload was just the audio from "DOOR STUCK! DOOR STUCK!" played repeatedly.

The story created a ripple of interest across the internet. Users on Reddit's r/COPYRIGHT began analyzing Bob Tik's internet footprint, trying to figure out exactly what the account was and what it was trying to do. "I only skimmed the video description and comments, but [it] sounds like it’s YouTube’s crappy rights enforcement scheme that sits outside of copyright law and possibly some DMCA takedown abuse sprinkled in," one user wrote.

Meanwhile, users on r/InternetMysteries suspected that Bob Tik wasn't a person at all, but a bot "browsing in the internet for non-copyrighted videos," on which it could claim copyright.

Because the Bob Tik uploads are auto-generated by YouTube, they do contain some additional information about how they ended up on the platform. Until 2021, Bob Tik's audio clips were being uploaded to YouTube via a service called National Digital Aggregator, a Russian digital rights management platform. In the summer of 2021, National Digital Aggregator was part of a consolidation in the Russian music market and renamed Zvonko Digital, which now distributes Bob Tik's audio catalog. Users upload audio files to Zvonko Digital, which then distributes those files to places like Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube.

YouTube's topic page system also lists a copyright holder underneath Bob Tik's uploads. Most of the audio clips list "Vizavi Music 2" as the copyright holder, while newer clips list "wowplusmusic."

Vizavi Music is a real record label. It has a page on VK, the main social network in Russia. And the Instagram page belonging to the owner of the label, Vlad Podoltsev, was swarmed by TikTok users earlier this month when they realized the connection between Bob Tik’s YouTube uploads and Vizavi Music. 

Podoltsev released a statement on Instagram, writing through a translator, "More than 10 managers work in our label. We receive applications from various artists and license their music. Musicians, Beatmakers, DJs, YouTube channels cooperate with us. We are an officially registered company. We pay taxes, we make payments to music copyright holders. We conduct legal activities."

Podoltsev pointed out that due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, he isn't even able to see anything happening on TikTok at the moment. Podoltsev also said that he knew Bob Tik and believed this was a misunderstanding.

“Bob is a musician. And he really creates music with his own hands. There are various sound libraries that are in the public domain" he wrote. "Perhaps they bought this sound on some site."

And, sure enough, there are listings for Bob Tik on Spotify, Soundcloud, and Russian music platform Yandex Music that feature music that appears to be original. And many of the audio clips on the YouTube topic page do not appear on other Bob Tik-affiliated social channels.

Podoltsev, via email, told me that the whole thing was a misunderstanding. "Bob Tik uses the titles of popular songs, but doesn't take those songs," he wrote. "These songs feature his own music."

Podoltsev believes someone may be using Bob Tik's name to claim copyright on viral audio clips. "This person duplicated the nickname," he said, referring to the "Bob Tik" stage name.

As for who is using the Bob Tik name, it's still unclear, but the other copyright holder listed on a handful of Bob Tik audio clips, wowplusmusic, has its own Yandex Music page and lists other artists, all releasing almost the same kind of music as Bob Tik — short looping EDM beats — and, most importantly, virtually identical album art, the solid color backdrop with a simple title written in a generic font. And wowplusmusic's artists all have auto-generated YouTube Topic pages that look identical to Bob Tik's. Also, unlike Vizavi Music, wowplusmusic doesn't have any other online presence aside from references on various music platforms.

Which means, in a bizarre twist of fate, it could be that everyone here is some shade of correct. Vizavi Music is a real label and Bob Tik is a real artist who isn't trying to claim copyright on American memes. But Bob Tik's listings, and the listings of other Russian artists associated with him, are being used to hijack viral audio clips on YouTube and TikTok by someone who has found a loophole in the way YouTube's topic page system interacts with both international digital rights services and the platform's own copyright-detecting A.I.

The internet has, increasingly, become a tangled web of automated services that are meant to impose some kind of order on the content we create and share. We rely on these services for things like monitoring copyright and vetting legitimate user uploads from scammers and bad actors. But these services make mistakes navigating that tangled web can be near impossible for the average user, doubly so for users outside of America.

But if you ever end up with a viral TikTok audio, you might want to think about copyrighting before someone else does.