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Lofi Girl disappeared, reigniting debate on YouTube's copyright policy

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

If you like chill background music while you're working or studying and you're of a certain age, you've probably already met Lofi Girl.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUNG KOREAN SONG, "5AM")

SHAPIRO: She's a teenage cartoon girl wearing large headphones as she hunches over a softly lit desk. She scribbles in a notebook. To her side, a striped orange cat gazes out on a beige cityscape.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Lofi Girl is an internet icon. The animation plays on a loop on the lo-fi hip-hop radio beats to relax/study to YouTube stream. It's a 24/7 livestream that plays low fidelity hip-hop music, or lo-fi for short.

HIXON FOSTER: It's kind of this genre that's entirely composed of nostalgia and that kind of rap aesthetic combined with more Japanese jazz aesthetics.

SHAPIRO: That's Hixon Foster, a student and lo-fi musician. He describes listening to lo-fi as a way to escape.

FOSTER: So I'd say "I'm Closing My Eyes" by Potsu featuring Shiloh is one of the most kind of iconic lo-fi songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M CLOSING MY EYES")

SHILOH: (Singing) I know you so well, so well.

FOSTER: Listening to it, I guess, in that lo-fi way, where it's meant to transport you somewhere else, I see this kind of Michigan snow field outside of my window as I sit cranking away on some music theory paper or something like that. So it's nostalgic, almost melancholy feeling.

CHANG: The genre has become increasingly popular in the last few years. There are countless people making lo-fi music, fan art, memes, spinoff streams, Halloween costumes. I mean, Lofi Girl is everywhere. And with nearly 11 million people subscribed to the channel, the Lofi Girl stream has been the go-to place for artists to feature their music.

SHAPIRO: But over the weekend, she went silent. YouTube took down the stream due to a copyright complaint, and fans were not happy.

FOSTER: There were camps that were confused and camps that were angry. I mainly saw various users being like, oh, my God, what is this? What's really going on with this?

CHANG: In a tweet, YouTube said that the complaints were false, and the stream returned two days later. Lofi Girl made it through the ordeal relatively unscathed, but for smaller artists who don't have huge platforms...

JAMES GRIMMELMANN: They are at the mercy of people sending abusive takedowns and YouTube's ability to detect and screen for them.

SHAPIRO: That's James Grimmelmann. He's a law professor at Cornell University, and he says false copyright claims are rampant.

GRIMMELMANN: People can use them for extortion or harassment or, in some cases, to file claims to monetize somebody else's videos.

SHAPIRO: YouTube gets so many copyright complaints that they can't carefully evaluate whether each one is legit, Grimmelmann says. They leave it up to the artist to prove the claims are wrong, sometimes in court, which can be a long process. Luckily, Lofi Girl and her millions of subscribers were able to make a big enough stink to get YouTube's attention quickly.

CHANG: So for now, you can fire up YouTube and get back to work. Lofi Girl will be right there with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF NUJABES SONG, "BATTLECRY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Kai McNamee