When Ethan Klein found out he was being sued by a fellow YouTube creator over a video he had produced for his channel, he never thought his personal legal battle would spark a backlash that raised tens of thousands of dollars and could change the way users of the video site fight lawsuits.
But three days after the lawsuit was made public by Klein on May 24, YouTube creators and their fans have collected more than $130,000 to help the embattled video star and his wife (and co-star) Hila fight back against a copyright claim by another YouTube user, Matt Hosseinzadeh. And with all that money, Klein, the 30-year-old founder of h3h3productions, now has his sights set on bigger things: protecting other YouTube creators who need a legal defense but lack his own stature.
As Klein tells it, the entire affair began when Hosseinzadeh sued him, alleging that a Klein video mocking Hosseinzadeh improperly used Hosseinzadeh's content. In a video revealing the lawsuit, Klein vigorously defended himself, saying the footage he used was covered under fair use law.
Klein told TIME the claim was a betrayal to users in the YouTube community, who are constantly being threatened over their work by “bullies,” usually from large corporations. Attempts to reach Hosseinzadeh through his YouTube account and on a phone number listed under his name were not successful. YouTube did not immediately return a request for comment.
“For us, it’s just making a stand against it and letting people know that they can’t do that,” Klein said.
As it turned out, there were many more people ready to take a stand as well. More than 5,718 people have donated $137,000 and counting to an online fundraiser another YouTube creator started to aid the Kleins in their legal battle. “They didn’t give us money because they like us," Klein said. "They did it because they want to protect that principle—to show them that we can’t be bullied.”
The enormous response provoked the Kleins to look beyond their own case. In a video Wednesday, the couple announced the money would be put in a newly created Fair Use Protection Account, or FUPA, "that will be used only for the purpose of protecting fair use and representing people big or small who are in legitimate need of protection." The account will be placed in the trust of the law firm Morrison/Lee, and users in trouble can contact FUPA for help.
“Anyone who is being bullied, big or small, basically at ours and our lawyers’ discretion, can tap into these resources to fight back,” Klein said. “We don’t want to touch a single cent of this. We want to use it as an umbrella to protect the Internet community.” He describes the new account as something like a "YouTubers' union" in Wednesday's video. "This is like a new chapter for fair use on YouTube," Klein says.
The Kleins have a fan base of more than two million subscribers between their two channels, and in three years have published more than 300 comedy videos, which they say bring in revenue along with almost $6,000 a month in crowd-funded donations. But the lawsuit, should they lose, could have ripple effects in the video-sharing community. “For one, it would make so many people really vulnerable,” Klein said. “The whole ecosystem on YouTube would become really unstable. It would be really scary.”
YouTube user Philip DeFranco, who launched the crowd funding page, said he stepped in to prevent a “terrible precedent” from being set that he fears could silence other creators. “This is something that hits close to home,” DeFranco said. “It’s horrible for all of us. This isn’t just a channel for them to post videos. This is their livelihood.”
The couple blamed the affair on what they called YouTube’s broken copyright system, saying the site’s need to legally protect itself puts its users at risk. “YouTube’s stance is to be neutral. In that neutrality, it’s always the creators who get hurt,” Klein said, adding that his channels have been “penalized” by YouTube over Hosseinzadeh’s copyright claim. “We’re going to go to court to protect 50% of its users, and it’s treating us like criminals,” he said.
Klein said nearly two dozen of the biggest donations have come from fellow YouTube users, including some of whom he has insulted in past videos. He and his supporters hope FUPA will be a deterrent to future opponents.
“If you go after one of us, you go after all of us,” DeFranco said. “We’re in it together.”