The Vine compilation den: Juan Estela in his apartment in Boston's Allston neighborhood.
Photograph for Money by Tony Luong

Millions Are Obsessed With Vine Compilations on YouTube. Now There's a Battle Brewing Over Who Should Get Paid

Apr 10, 2019

Just before turning 20 last summer, self-described weirdo Juan Estela decided to investigate his past. He’s typically open about his strange personality, but the landmark birthday motivated him to determine how exactly he got that way.

So he turned to his Tumblr blog, where from seventh through 11th grades he bookmarked funny six-second videos from the now-defunct app Vine. While browsing, Estela realized “that period of my digital life shaped a lot of who I am today”—and so, naturally, he needed to make a Vine compilation.

Estela spent an entire night painstakingly scrolling through his archives, scrutinizing posts he had tagged #lmao, and downloading his favorites.

“I literally sat at my computer for hours just going through all the videos I ever [shared],” he says. “I was just like, ‘Oh, yeah, I have vivid memories of seeing that in my room, laughing at it, and quoting that for weeks.’ ”

Eventually he had saved more than 150 Vines, among them clips of a boy pretending to smoke the steam from a pot of macaroni and cheese, a teenager gagging on a McFlurry spoon when her sister taps the car brakes, and a woman impersonating Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part I. Using Adobe Premiere Pro, Estela cut them into a 20-minute video and uploaded it to YouTube. Finally, he shared “ULTRA-RARE VINES THAT SHAPED MY TEENAGE EXISTENCE” on Snapchat, telling his friends, “If you’re wondering why I am the way I am, this is it.”

But more than just his curious pals tuned in. He was proud to see the compilation catch on. In the past 10 months, the video has racked up over 4 million views.

And every single thing in it is, technically, stolen.

In trying to explain his dark sense of humor, Estela unwittingly stumbled upon a battle brewing over Vine clips, YouTube, and who deserves payment. There’s an entire generation of young people obsessed with producing, watching, and referencing Vine compilations like Estela’s, but the original creators still want credit—and ad revenue—for clips they made years ago. As view counts continue to climb, both Viners and YouTubers are facing big questions about income and ownership.

“Vine was an art,” Estela says, downplaying the YouTube video he uploaded. “If you get it right, you should reap the benefits—not some rando who decides your Vine is funny enough to put into a 20-minute compilation.”

Inside the Vine Gold Mine

When Vine launched in 2013, it was a hit. Two years later the short-form service had 200 million active monthly users watching Vines play, or loop, more than 1.5 billion times every day.

It gave birth to a new kind of celebrity: the Vine star. Because all it required was a smartphone, there was virtually no barrier to success. Anybody could get Vine-famous if he or she happened to be recording at the right moment.

Vine stars quickly got absorbed into mainstream entertainment culture, appearing on The Late Late Show and scoring brand deals worth up to $50,000. One industry exec even proposed adding Viners to the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

But as time passed, Vine fell behind rivals Instagram and Snapchat. Its owner, Twitter, reportedly couldn’t afford the rumored $10 million a month required for upkeep. Creators left the app in droves, and Vine formally shut down in 2017.

Compilations showcasing Vine’s greatest hits had been a popular YouTube genre when the app was alive, but they blew up once it died.

A few people, like pop singer Shawn Mendes and actor King Bach, were able to land massive post-Vine careers. But others, like the late Brandon Moore, who coined the “What are those?” catchphrase that made fun of a police officer’s ugly sneakers, found themselves stuck. His quip went so viral it got written into the dialogue of Black Panther, but Moore spent years haunted by regret that he didn’t properly monetize and copyright his work.

Tyler McFadden spotted an opening into compilation culture early on. The co-CEO/cofounder of a Los Angeles–based talent network called Collab and an executive producer of the web series Eli’s Dirty Jokes, he knew firsthand how tough it was to be a full-time creator.

“Even when Vine shut down, its content continued to be pirated,” says McFadden, 37. “There were lots of people who were trying to make lots of money off content they had no rights to.”

So he and his brothers, James and Will, launched CollabDRM, a digital rights management branch within Collab. It grew, thanks mostly to word of mouth: As Tyler puts it, Vine creators were earning as much as $30,000 a month that their friends weren’t, “and when those payments would come in every month, they would tell people, ‘You should be working with Collab.’ ”

(Collab is one of a handful of companies that deal in viral videos, though others, like Jukin Media and ViralHog, do not focus much on Vines.)

Much of CollabDRM’s business model for former Viners is a bit tricky, as it depends on YouTube. If you want to monetize your own videos through advertisements that run before and during your videos, you have to apply to be in the YouTube Partner Program, which comes with a strict set of guidelines. One major rule? YouTube says you must have the right to use everything in your videos commercially—and that “you’re adding value to any third-party content you monetize.”

But even if you don’t put ads on your videos, you’re still at the mercy of Content ID, a system that checks uploads for unauthorized use of copyrighted content. Upon finding a lifted clip, content owners or their representatives, like Collab, can place a claim on the video. They can then take one of three actions: track viewer data, block the video in certain regions, or have YouTube run ads on it and generate revenue. That last option, of course, is the most popular route.

Collab’s staff of about 65 people places about 30,000 claims a month using YouTube’s automated software as well as its own “methods and best practices,” according to Tyler. It handles rights management for about 1,000 people and says it recently passed the $100 million mark in earnings paid to its clients.

“Creators need consistent monthly revenue in order to help pay their bills, and that’s what this service provides without creating additional work on their part,” Tyler says.

Collab splits the money recouped from compilations with clients in a revenue share. The company won’t disclose what portion it takes but says the creator typically receives the majority. Collab’s proprietary software can pay dozens of rights-holders on a single compilation video.

It’s an ideal setup for Brandon Zingale, whose Vine hits include “Adele won’t bring Napoleon his Chapstick.” He says he earns from $500 to $1,000 a month from Collab.

In his eyes, it’s only fair.

“You spend all this time creating this content,” the 28-year-old from Cleveland says. “You would want to get recognition and get paid for it.”

Zingale struggled to make money from Vine itself when it was around, but it did jump-start his career. He now works for a digital marketing agency and is an influencer on Instagram. His Collab checks are icing on the post-Vine cake.

“Just because Vine’s dead doesn’t mean the Vines are dead. They’re still living on the Internet,” he says. “I basically just have to sit back and watch money come in.”

James, Tyler, and Will McFadden (from left) in Collab's Los Angeles offices.
Photograph for Money by Michael Lewis

Are Vine Compilations Art?

If you’re a YouTuber who made a Vine compilation, and you find yourself on the receiving end of a claim, you can dispute it, take your video down, or do nothing. Regardless of whether you intended to profit from your compilation, Collab retains the power to take it over—and monetize it—because it contains a Vine belonging to a creator Collab has signed a rights management deal with.

That’s a harsh reality for people like Mattea Brotherton, for whom making Vine compilations has essentially become a part-time job. In high school, she would pull out her laptop during free periods, after the bell, and late at night to curate compilations. Her criterion was simple: “If it made me laugh hard enough that other people could hear me, it would go into the video,” she says.

For Brotherton, now a 21-year-old college student in North Bay, Ontario, creating a compilation is a lengthy process that can take up to a year. She judges Vines, uses a YouTube-to-MP4 downloader to convert them, and then edits them in iMovie. She takes pride in scouring YouTube for the best Vines, even if they’re hidden in other compilations with five or fewer views.

“It was stupid how much time I put into these videos,” she says. “I was staying up until two in the morning just watching and weeding out and cutting it down.”

Her best-performing compilation has 1.4 million views, but she doesn’t make them for the attention or audience reach, like professional compilation channels that now exist might.

“I struggled with some mental health issues in high school, which is one of the reasons I got so into it. They brought six seconds of joy into my life if I was having a hard day,” she says.

She’s not alone. Vine compilation culture has so fully evolved into a phenomenon that nearly everyone under the age of 20 has a go-to, like “vines that butter my croissant,” “vines that cared for me when no one else did,” or “ancient vines i watch with my grandfather.” Estela says these odd, hyper-specific titles are intentional; creators name the videos that way because they truly “do have that much of an impact” on someone’s mood.

Compilations are not only addictive but also easy to consume because YouTube automatically loads them one after another. They’re the perfect way to avoid work, homework, working out, and going out. People binge them in bed, at bars, when drunk, on dates, and on the toilet. Several teens have requested Vine compilations be played at their funerals instead of slideshows.

That’s in part why many YouTubers don’t see their use of unauthorized content as outright stealing. To them, Vine compilations are an art like a mashup or a mixtape, and as such, they require skill. Compilation creators pay special attention to the clips’ order and narrative flow. They’re obsessed with finding rare Vines viewers have never seen before. They caption them, type out volume warnings, and diligently respond to commenters. (For the record, Collab’s Tyler McFadden says he “wouldn’t consider it art for a creator to stitch together six-second videos they didn’t make themselves.”)

Although Brotherton agrees she shouldn’t profit off other people’s work, she says she felt “disheartened” when she was contacted by Collab because it “would have been really cool” to get compensated for her hours of editing. And, she says, YouTube’s rules have become only more strict with time.

“The fewest number of Collab copyright infringements I have on one video is eight,” Brotherton says. “You can’t post anything on YouTube anymore without getting something.”

Confronting Copyright and Consequences

Lawyers have spent years trying to sort out how copyright law should apply to the Internet, and Vine compilations are yet another wrinkle to contend with. The overarching question is whether a compilation constitutes a truly new piece of artistic work—one that’s transformative, using the video for a new purpose, meaning, or message.

If so, it may fall under the fair use doctrine. If not, the compiler might not have much of a defense.

“If a user has a super interesting viral video, they’ve got something of value, and if you post it without their permission, without any sort of transformation, it’s probably an issue,” says Art Neill, the executive director of New Media Rights, a nonprofit program through the California Western School of Law. “Even if it’s a dead platform where somebody posted a six-second video. The creator has rights under copyright law, and they may choose to enforce those rights.”

Perhaps the most outspoken critic of Collab is Jameskii, a Danish YouTuber who has 1.5 million subscribers. Jameskii uploaded a video of himself mocking posts on the video-sharing app TikTok last year, and Collab sent him several claims. But in a move that made his fans accuse Collab of being money-hungry “copyright trolls,” the company didn’t include time stamps indicating which parts were allegedly stolen. (Tyler McFadden says YouTube’s system does not allow people manually claiming videos to input those specifics. YouTube says a time stamp update is in the works.)

Jameskii argued the commentary in his video made it transformative. In response, the company offered to let him buy the licenses—but that, too, was unsatisfactory.

“I don’t know what to call it other than ransom,” he says. “I s--t you not, one of the claims they wanted me to pay $300 for was two girls appearing in my video for literally two seconds.”

Jameskii eventually took the video down, but, he says, his issue fits into a larger trend on YouTube. According to Dylan Russell, a YouTuber in Dallas who goes by YuB, the tug-of-war over ad revenue is changing the site’s culture.

Russell, 31, clashed with Collab over his 2017 video “TRY NOT TO LAUGH CHALLENGE #2,” in which he shared a split screen with a Vine compilation made by someone else. As the title suggests, his part of the screen showed him trying to hold it in, which is an inherently funny thing to watch. Collab claimed and took over monetization one day after the video went up—just as Russell was about to earn $4, he says.

Russell learned his lesson; now he won’t risk using someone else’s copyrighted content unless he’s okay with losing all the money from a video. Challenging claims is not an option for him. And there’s another consequence: If you dispute a claim and lose twice, the copyright owner can put a much-feared strike on your YouTube channel, which can accumulate and lead to termination.

“A big company like Collab versus one YouTuber—you hesitate to hit that ‘dispute’ button,” he says. “Best case, you bully them out of claiming your video. Worst case, you can end up in court.”

The Vine life: Emily, of Not Even Emily, photographed in her home on the East Coast. She's currently in nursing school.
Photograph for Money by Gene Smirnov

More Than a Paycheck

When Collab uncovers a Vine that has been lifted, Viners are now typically happy—because it means a bigger payday. That’s the case with Not Even Emily, of “Playing hangman with those kids who always make you add unnecessary things” fame.

Emily, a 20-year-old who doesn’t use her last name online, never saw Vine as a moneymaker. But, admittedly, it was a lot of work. On days she didn’t have homework, she would pump out six Vines in two hours, often reshooting if her tone or inflection wasn’t just right.

After Vine shut down, Emily wasn’t even aware her videos were being reshared in compilations until Collab contacted her. Now, she says, she’s earning between $1,300 and $2,000 a month.

The cash goes directly into her savings account. But there’s another benefit, too, of popping up in random YouTube compilation videos.

“This is purely an ego thing, but it’s nice to know people still seek out seeing my content,” Emily says.

Collab recently launched an ad sales unit, and it continues to maintain in-house channels in which it syndicates content in its own authorized compilations. Meanwhile, the long-awaited successor to Vine, called byte, is on track to launch this spring—and it’s already posted on a forum that monetization plans are “taking shape.”

In the interim, Desmond “MightyDuck” English credits Collab with changing his life. A Vine star known for his “Ooh, he stealing” pranks, he was working the graveyard shift cleaning tanks at a salad dressing factory when he signed with the company.

“My first check ever was $200, and I was like, ‘Okay, it’s something,’” he recalls. “Then it went up to $400, then $2,000, and then at that point, I was like, ‘Shoot. Should I quit my job?’”

When the sum reached $25,000 a month, he did. Now the 25-year-old gets to work on his own terms, traveling, spending time with family in Atlanta, and working out whenever he wants. English says he feels “blessed,” especially because he doesn’t have to put his kids in day care.

He’s thankful viewers still enjoy his Vines years after they were posted. But if someone uses them in a compilation without permission, English does want to get paid for it. It’s his livelihood, and his right.

“It’s my video, and my phone was in my hand when I was recording it,” he says. “All publicity is good publicity, but at the end of the day, somebody needs to cut the check.”