CNN Business  — 

In 2018, Twitch streamer Ryann Weller played a 30-second snippet of 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” on one of his livestreams. He showed viewers an animated e-card featuring his fans’ faces dancing to the 2003 hit song. It became one of thousands of clips that fans have created of Weller’s livestreams since he joined the Amazon-owned service in 2015.

“Go shawty, it’s your birthday,” he rapped to CNN Business, echoing the song’s opening line. “I mean, I wish I could show you the clip, but of course it already got deleted.”

On June 5, two years after Weller’s livestream featuring the 50 Cent e-card and long after he had forgotten it, Weller received a sternly-worded copyright takedown notice via email from Twitch. “We’ve received a notice of alleged copyright infringement with respect to your account,” it said. The copyright claim came from the Recording Industry Association of America, which has ramped up sending takedown notices on Twitch in June.

Weller — a former game developer for Telltale Games who has nearly 20,000 followers on Twitch — said he had no idea that videos saved by his fans could make him the target of a copyright infringement claim. Twitch auto-deletes full broadcasts after 60 days, so the clips are all that’s left of his old streams.

For years, Twitch has been the Wild West for streaming music, but in recent months it has attracted attention from record labels as its viewership has jumped during the pandemic. In July, Twitch had 1.4 billion hours watched, up 67% compared to the same period last year, with 17.6 million watched in the music category, according to StreamElements, a publisher of industry reports.

Twitch has fallen under scrutiny by record labels represented by the RIAA, which holds copyrights to millions of songs. In June, the RIAA sent out 1,817 copyright notices to Twitch users. Prior to the June crackdown, only 710 such notices had been issued to Twitch users since the association began sending notices out in 2017.

Is it illegal to stream music on Twitch? Content creators can argue that based on how little music is being used and the context of the stream, some music streaming should be considered fair use and therefore not illegal. But the RIAA said it looks to see if a clip could be fair use before sending out its notices.

Twitch user Ryann Weller.

On Twitch, users can record highlights from livestreams they watch which are then saved to the streamers’ channels. The service operates on a three strike rule. In the first notice, users are warned that “if this is your third copyright strike, your account is now terminated.” Users can appeal the decision.

“Mentally and emotionally, I’ve been a freaking wreck,” said Weller. “If I get two more I lose my livelihood. I’ve already told my community that if I receive one more strike then I’m gonna have to move forward and nuke basically everything.” Twitch is his primary source of income and while he declined to discuss how much he makes, “I will say we are able to get by, but barely.”

For more than two decades, the RIAA and the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry — which represent labels that include Universal, Warner Music Group, and Sony among others — have used the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to enforce their rights to their copyrighted music. The 1998 law made it illegal to freely distribute or duplicate digital copyrighted works.

Copyright owners can send a takedown notice against any online service provider if their content is used without permission.

Instagram Live and YouTube have licensing agreements in place with record labels, and compensate the artists whose music is on their platforms artists. Twitch, however, has no such arrangement in place.

RIAA CEO Mitch Glazier said he has “no idea” why Amazon, which has its own Amazon Music streaming service, pays artists for their work on that platform while Twitch does not. “The hope is that Twitch starts to respect artists’ work and understand that if they’re going to use their music on their platform, then they’ve got to pay them for their work,” he said.

The notices put individual users’ accounts at risk, but don’t come with financial penalty.

“This isn’t about the users on Twitch,” said Glazier. “This is specifically that Twitch, unlike its competitors, doesn’t cover compensation of music, and instead puts that onus on its users.”

The industry group uses an automated process to scan Twitch for video clips that contain infringing music, but the possibly offending clips are reviewed by people who check to see if the music is copyrighted before sending a takedown notice, Glazier added. Users can also challenge Twitch’s takedown decisions.

Why June?

Video game attorney Ryan Morrison, CEO of talent agency Evolved, which represents pro esports players and Twitch content creators, said his clients began contacting him in droves in early June when they began receiving DMCA notices. “What I genuinely believe happened is that these record labels have only recently truly caught wind of what Twitch is and saw the money-making opportunity there,” he said.

Record labels began talks with Twitch in late 2018 to form a strategic partnership, said a source familiar with the talks between Twitch and the music industry. But the talks were suspended earlier this year, and now the labels are pressuring the platform’s content creators, the source said, adding “we were the ones approaching them [Twitch,] and it was a one-way conversation.”

The bottom line for record labels, according to the source, is that Twitch is an emerging music platform, with plenty of opportunities to integrate copyrighted music, if only Twitch would cooperate.

On June 8, Twitch tweeted about a “sudden influx of DMCA takedown requests for clips with background music from 2017-19. If you’re unsure about rights to audio in past streams, we advise removing those clips,” the tweet said. “We adhere to the DMCA, which requires that we take action on content and streamer accounts upon notice from rights holders, as happened this week.”

After being contacted by CNN Business in June, the platform issued further clarification on June 10 via Twitter that it is expanding its use of “Audible Magic” a product Twitch uses to identify clips “that may contain copyrighted music and delete them for you without penalty.”

Twitch terminates the accounts of repeat offenders and “at its sole discretion” can limit access to its service or terminate an account regardless of repeat infringement, it states on its DMCA guidelines.

Twitch declined to comment beyond its tweets. In a tweet on June 7, the company’s head of creator development Marcus Graham, who also goes by djWheat, said, “This is something every streamer should understand intimately. If you drive a truck, know the laws of the road. If you stream content, know the laws of the internet.”

In a tweet, Graham described the DMCA as “outdated,” saying that it was created long before Twitch, YouTube and TikTok existed.

On July 23, Twitch tweeted that users can now download individual clips to save them, and delete all their clips with a single click. Jeremy Forrester, head of creator products at Twitch, tweeted that they were still working on tools for helping users delete infringing clips while leaving the rest of their archive intact.

Several Twitch streamers told CNN Business they won’t delete their video clips, even those with copyrighted music, and will wait for Twitch to take action against them.

Music is all over Twitch, as artists and DJs are using the platform in far greater numbers during the ongoing pandemic. With live performances canceled, many have turned to making beats on livestreams. Some streamers play games like “Beat Saber” and “Just Dance,” where gameplay involves moving to music. Still others play some music to ease audiences into a stream or end an hours-long show.

How streamers reacted

Mikayla Neil, a 21-year-old variety streamer in Melbourne, Australia, uses music as background noise while chatting with viewers. She has nearly 69,000 followers. When she began streaming in February 2018, “I wasn’t clear what was allowed and what wasn’t,” she said.

She received a DMCA notice on June 3 for playing Ariana Grande’s mega-hit “7 Rings” in her stream, which was clipped by a fan. Twitch automatically deleted it after she received the takedown notice, and couldn’t view it.

Twitch user Macaiyla Edwards.

In Missouri, Macaiyla Edwards, 21, a variety streamer known for dating prominent “League of Legends” streamer Tyler1, told CNN Business she received a DMCA notice on June 5 at nearly midnight.

“It just caught me off guard. I never knew you could get striked for clips,” said Edwards, who added that she thought full videos of past broadcasts would be an issue, but not video clips, which are shorter. “I’m not sure what I’ll do when I come back to streaming because music plays a huge part in a lot of people’s streams.”

What’s next

Zack, better known as “Asmongold,” is a 29-year-old World of Warcraft streamer based in Austin, Texas, who has 1.6 million followers. He declined to provide his last name. He received a DMCA notice on June 6 from the RIAA for using “Cake by the Ocean” by DNCE in a video clip dating back to July 2019.

Asmongold said he believed people don’t tune into a Twitch stream just to listen to music, despite what record labels might argue.

Nobody says “‘You know what, I was going to buy the album, but I’m going to listen to this Twitch stream instead.’ That’s not a decision that users make,” he said.

The situation could transform how Twitch handles music and what platforms are left as the Wild West for streamers continue to play copyrighted music on without repercussions, for now. Caffeine and other emerging livestreaming platforms are subject to the same DMCA rules.

In late July, Weller gave CNN Business an update. Since he received a takedown notice on Twitch in June, he has branched out and begun making videos on YouTube. He’s also paying the electronic dance music label Monstercat a subscription fee to use music from its artists on his Twitch and YouTube videos.

“These DMCA strikes are so scary and damaging. Feels like you could lose your very livelihood in an instant,” he said. “I’m now hyper sensitive to any copyrighted music and sounds, and have been changing anything and everything that could cause a problem.”