He added that Machinima had since offered him another deal, but with terms no more favorable than his previous contract. He said he would be working with a lawyer to settle the matter.

Complaints about unfair YouTube contracts are common — even from the site's biggest star.

On Dec. 10, Ray William Johnson, whose channel boasts more than 6 million subscribers, couldn't keep quiet any longer. He tweeted: "Yo @MakerStudios I left your company two months ago. **ANY TIME** would be good to sign my AdSense account back over to me." AdSense is the account into which YouTube ad revenue is deposited — the way in which YouTube stars receive compensation for their work.

Braindeadly, aka Ben Vacas, had 40,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel when he quit making videos.
Braindeadly, aka Ben Vacas, had 40,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel when he quit making videos.
Video game filmmaker Hugh Hancock sold Machinima.com to entrepreneurs in 2006.
Cory Doctorow /Wikimedia
Video game filmmaker Hugh Hancock sold Machinima.com to entrepreneurs in 2006.

And two minutes later: "@MakerStudios holding a YouTuber's AdSense account hostage after you promised to sign it back over is bad for your business."

Maker Studios positions itself publicly as the network for YouTube stars, founded by YouTube stars. Among them is LisaNova (Lisa Donovan), who parlayed her YouTube fame into a stint on MadTV before starting the network with fellow YouTube video-makers Danny Diamond (her fiancé, Danny Zappin) and Thebdonski (her brother, Ben Donovan).

For a few years, Ray William Johnson was part of the Maker family, too. Johnson, 31, launched his YouTube channel in 2008, and dropped out of Columbia University shortly thereafter. For the last four years, he's been producing videos almost daily.

Signs that there might be trouble between Johnson and the studio first emerged in October, when Johnson announced in one of his daily videos that his company, Equals Three, was leaving Maker.

"What's up guys, you're going to notice a few things are different," he tells viewers, standing in front of the same comic book panel-patterned backdrop he typically uses. "I'm filming this episode from my apartment."

In the future, Johnson explained, he would no longer be part of the Maker network. He didn't go into detail, though — the rest of the video is spent, like most of his videos, cracking wise about other videos.

A representative for Maker released a statement to the website New Media Rockstars insisting that Johnson was still part of Maker but that, "with the recent decline in viewership on [Johnson's channel], it made sense for him to go back to producing the show himself."

Johnson shot back, telling the same reporter that he was leaving because Maker had suddenly demanded an ownership stake in his company.

After that, both sides went quiet until December, when Johnson issued those angry tweets — and then explained in an e-mail why he was speaking out against Maker.

"I feel that I have a responsibility to myself and to the YouTube community to stand up to them and their rather thuggish tactics," he wrote. "They wanted to own 50 percent of the intellectual property of Equals Three for the rest of eternity and weren't offering much in return," Johnson explained.

"Negotiations quickly became a bizarre pissing contest between the heads at Maker Studios and myself," he wrote. According to Johnson, the network shut down production on his album, and, a day later, halted production on his 4-year-old show.

Johnson began recording episodes first at his apartment. But two months after leaving Maker Studios, he alleges, the company still hasn't turned his AdSense account back over to him.

In the e-mail he provided to media outlets, Johnson didn't just throw down about his contract. He got personal, writing that Maker CEO Danny Zappin had gotten drunk and confessed to being a convicted felon. (In a letter sent to Maker's partners a few days later, Zappin acknowledged that he'd been convicted of felony drug possession 12 years prior.) Johnson wrote that he didn't know about Zappin's conviction before he signed with Maker, suggesting it might have affected his decision to join the company.

A few hours after Johnson first took the dispute to Twitter, he tweeted again. This tweet featured an Instagram of an iMessage that Johnson claims to have received from Zappin. It read, "You're [sic] lack of integrity and character are sad. Fuck You. Prepare for war ... bitch."

Former Maker Studios partner Shane Dawson, who left the studio in 2009, tweeted at Johnson, "i got the same text 3 years ago hahhahahaa oh youtubeee."

Maker Studios declined to comment the status of Johnson's AdSense account. And since his first e-mail, Johnson has declined to provide any additional information. Instead, a representative wrote, "He has been advised by his attorney to not give any more interviews until the issue with Maker has been resolved."

Taken together, these fights constitute a bigger issue, one not unlike those that developed when the film industry was first finding its feet.

Like Maker Studios and Machinima, the film studios of the '30s and '40s didn't just produce content, they distributed it, says Tino Balio, professor emeritus of communication arts at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and an expert on the history of the American film industry.

At the time, studios produced shorter, lower-budget films on a tight schedule because theatrical runs were brief — only about a week. Studios churned out one major movie every week, plus a few B films, to meet demand.

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