Lofi Girl disappeared from YouTube and reignited debate over bogus copyright claims
A young cartoon girl wearing large headphones hunches over a softly lit desk. She's scribbling in a notebook. To her side, a striped orange cat gazes out on a beige cityscape.
The Lofi Girl is an internet icon. The animation plays on a loop on the "lofi hip hop radio — beats to relax/study to" YouTube stream.
It's a 24/7 live stream that plays low-fidelity hip hop music — or lofi for short.
"I would say lofi music is the synthesis of golden era rap aesthetic with the Japanese jazz aesthetics that is then put through this lens of nostalgia," says Hixon Foster, a student and lofi artist.
He describes listening to lofi as a way to escape. Some songs are lonely or melancholy, others remind him of his school years in Michigan and toiling away at homework while listening to tunes.
The genre has become increasingly popular in the last few years. There are countless people making lofi music, fan art, memes, spin-off streams, and Halloween costumes.
Basically, Lofi Girl is everywhere. And with nearly 11 million people subscribed to the channel, the Lofi Girl stream has been the go-to place to find this music.
But last weekend, she went missing. YouTube had taken down the stream due to a false copyright claim.
Fans were not happy.
"There were camps that were confused and camps that were angry," Foster said. "I mainly saw kind of, at least through the lofi Discord, various users being like, 'Oh my God what is this? What's really going on with this?'"
YouTube quickly apologized for the mistake, and the stream returned two days later. But this isn't the first time musicians have been wrongfully shut down on YouTube.
"There's been a lot of examples of copyright going against the ideas of art and artistic evolution," Foster said. "It feels like a lot of the legal practices are going towards stifling artists, which is interesting when the main idea of them is to be protecting them."
The rise of bogus copyright claims
Lofi Girl made it through the ordeal relatively unscathed, but smaller artists who don't have huge platforms may not be so lucky.
"They are at the mercy of people sending abusive takedowns and YouTube's ability to detect and screen for them," said James Grimmelmann, a law professor at Cornell University.
He said false copyright claims were rampant.
"People can use them for extortion or harassment or in some cases to file claims to monetize somebody else's videos," he said.
YouTube gets so many copyright claims that they can't carefully evaluate whether each one is legitimate, Grimmelmann said.
They leave it up to the artist to prove the claims are wrong — sometimes in court — which can be a long process.
Grimmelmann said it's up to Congress to fix copyright law for it to work better for artists. The current laws incentivize YouTube to err on the side of removing artists' content, rather than being precise in their enforcement of copyright claims.
"We ended up with this system because in the 1990s, when the contours of the internet and copyright are still coming into view, this is the compromise that representatives of the copyright industries and the internet industries worked out," Grimmelmann said.
"It's a compromise that hasn't destroyed anybody's business and has made it possible for artists to put their stuff online," Grimmelmann said. "And there has not been the appetite to try to upend that compromise because somebody's ox will get gored if they do."
Luckily, Lofi Girl and her millions of subscribers were able to make a big enough stink to get YouTube's attention quickly and get the issue resolved.
For now, lofi fans can get back to relaxing and studying. Lofi Girl will be right there with you.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.