It’s not hard to find an uproar on the internet. Last week saw the announcement – and retraction – of a controversial new concept by Benny and Rafi Fine, the two guys behind one of Youtube’s better known channels ‘Fine Brothers Entertainment’. If you don’t know the channel’s name, you might know their videos: they are the guys behind the ‘Youtubers/Kids/Elders etc REACT to x’ videos. The new concept was to expand the REACT brand by licensing it to people around the world so that they too could create and cultivate their own reaction videos. Franchising, which is essentially what the Fine Brothers were going for here, is commonplace in this world. But the announcement saw a massive backlash, and their primary Youtube channel lost over 300 000 subscribers (out of over 14 million) in less than a week, a loss that is more or less unheard of in the website’s history. So what went wrong?
*For the sake of clarity, when I’m referencing the videos/brand made by Fine Brothers, it will be specified as REACT, when I’m referring to other videos that use it, or the act of ‘reacting’, it will be written as react. The fact I need to separate the two like this should hint at part of the controversy.
While it can be argued that the Fine Brothers have popularised the concept of the media reaction genre, they didn’t create it. If you’ve never seen a video from the genre, it basically amounts to watching strangers watch a piece of media, with the intention to capture their ‘reaction’ to either the whole video or a particular moment. Jump scare videos or shocking events like ‘The Red Wedding’ in Game of Thrones have been popular subjects, and music video or trailer reactions are littered across the internet appealing to their respective fandoms.
What the Fine Brothers have managed to do is craft a massive fanbase centred around a well structured version of this. Many reaction videos online are rather amateur looking, using a simple camera and slim to no editing, often resulting in a dark looking video with the focus purely on the initial reaction itself, with a maybe a small expression of thoughts afterwards if the video isn’t meant to resemble a voyeur aspect (as the Red Wedding or horror scares often are). The Fine Brothers however made a professional looking setup with graphic overlays and set backdrops, but they also structured it to seem like a program with three distinct sections: the initial reactions, the post viewing thoughts and then a discussion of media themes and concepts beyond that of what they reacted to. The end result helped their videos stand out from the others and gain some serious popularity.
So while they did a great job in making their work distinctive, that doesn’t give them the right to own the concept. And many people saw the franchising concept, branded as ‘REACT World’, as a way of ‘owning’ the genre. Not only would they look to make money of these offshoot channels, they would be trademarking the word ‘react’ for any videos relating to the genre, causing other Youtube videos that use the word to be at risk of being deleted.
The suspicion around these motives weren’t totally unfounded. There have been claims that other similar videos had been taken down by Youtube thanks to complaints made by The Fine Brothers, including a ‘Seniors React’ video that was produced before The Fine Brothers started their ‘Elders REACT to’ series. On top of that, in 2014 the Fine Brothers went after Ellen DeGeneres for a segment they felt was a ripoff of one of their concepts – though the complaint was quickly removed after their complaints brought a substantial backlash from fans.
When the idea was first announced, there was plenty of positive responses from fans who were keen to jump on board with REACT World, as fans announced their intention to join in the comments section and called out for other nearby fans to join them in the process. By partnering, prospective creators would have received the rights to use the REACT graphics, music and perhaps more importantly to this discussion – the right to use the ‘REACT’ title. In return for these rights, The Fine Brothers would get a cut of any money made through these videos
But the response wasn’t all positive. Many took to social media to condemn the idea, fearing it was a way of owning an idea that wasn’t exclusively theirs. Their subscriber numbers plummeted and their videos received a flood of negative comments and dislikes. To get an idea of the backlash, a video they released around the time of the announcement, ‘Teens React to Fuller House’ had at one stage 274 thousand dislikes to 56 thousand likes, with almost all the top comments related to the controversy. Similar like disparities can be found in many of their recent videos, as the backlash has continued even after the apology. The condemning of the Fine Brothers has basically become memetic at this point, videos across Youtube are marked with comments of ‘The Fine Brothers will sue you for this reaction’ and similar types of comments, and there have been plenty of shared content on Facebook mocking them as well.
There was a lot of concern about what legal issues potential content creators would face if they were perceived to be encroaching on the trademarks. Ryan Morrison, a lawyer and avid gamer, warned on his website that “If you make reaction videos, which a lot of Youtubers do, you are potentially in a load of trouble.” He also stated that, in relation to the movie itself: “These guys didn’t come up with the idea of filming funny reactions from kids … it’s not theirs to own or police.”
Now, REACT World is no longer a thing. The Fine Brothers withdrew plans for the idea after the heavy backlash. They’ve also rescinded the trademark applications they filed as well as past Content ID claims (that would remove videos that were deemed to be imitations of their own). In their apology they claimed that their intentions were pure but they understand why people interpreted it as a power-grab. What exactly their true intentions were is merely speculation, but the online realm in general is still trying to find its feet with regards to ownership.
Youtube content creators like Nostalgia Critic are constantly butting heads with issues surrounding ‘Fair Use’ and copyright, and fan films like the Power Rangers short that came under copyright fire last year are often deleted. This Fine Brothers fiasco is merely another example of the issues surrounding creator rights. Their REACT videos have been crafted in a way that separates them from the vast majority of other reaction videos, and it would be easy for others to copy their format and structures in a way that would be directly copying what they have done, but their attempts of trademarking would have stretched beyond those videos and into the genre itself.
Reaction videos are not a Fine Brothers creation, even if they did popularise it. Stopping others from using ‘react’ in their video title is a problem – while REACT is basically a brand name at this point, it is also literally THE word used to describe what they are doing. Sony had the same issue when they tried to trademark the term “Let’s Play”, and it’d be akin to MKR trademarking ‘kitchen’ and stopping other cooking shows from using that word in their title. This is also occuring online, and rightly or otherwise stealing content online is basically a past time. Artwork and videos are constantly taken without consent or attribution, and meme culture actively encourages the kind of re-appropriation and sharing that warps concepts of ownership.
It comes down to this comparison the Fine Brothers made in addressing the issue: Anyone can produce a singing talent show, but what you can’t do is copy the format and structure of The X-Factor. Allegedly the intention was to protect their REACT video formats from copiers – the REACT World was just a way of letting people utilise that format without being ripped off. They have a point, but when their plan would block people from calling their video ‘x reacts to y’ because it would be in breach of their title – despite that being merely an apt and reasonable description – the issue becomes understandably convoluted. It does also seem like a cheap attempt to capitalise on a fanbase, who might be enticed by the prospect of being under the REACT banner when they don’t have to be.
In any case, the damage has truly been done. Whether the Fine Brothers brand is permanently damaged or not remains to be seen, while they lost over 300 000 subscribers in a couple of days they do still have 13.7 odd million people who didn’t unsubscribe. How long people choose to bombard their new videos with hate is hard to say but often the majority fade away once a new online controversy arises, though the damage done to their video likes and comments will remain. In the long term things might stabilise for them, and changing their plans probably saved them even more ridicule, but the short term impact is loud and clear. Intellectual property is a minefield online though, and this won’t be the last time we have something like this occur, I can guarantee you that.