The Fine Brothers Controversy Explained

One of the largest YouTube channels in the world just lost over 250,000 subscribers. Why? Short Version here.

The Fine Brothers have been making online video since 2007. They’ve had success with a number of formats, but none more-so than their “React” series where kids, elders, teens, adults, and popular YouTubers react to…stuff…mostly YouTube videos. But also you get videos of teens reacting to old-school video game consoles…which makes me feel very old.

This doesn’t sound tremendously complicated, but lots of people do it and the Fines do it best. The production quality is good, the editing is spot on, and the brothers (who interview guests and guide the conversation) get great reactions out of their guests.

It’s not revolutionary media, but it’s extremely popular. They’re fun videos to watch, and I myself have been in a number of them.

So how did these guys who make, like, the least offensive content on Earth just get embroiled in an internet-wide hate-storm?

Well, first you have to know that The Fines (and they are my friends) have themselves reacted poorly to some previous situations. As comes with success, plenty of people have parodied the Fines and one particularly insulting (and it is very mean) parody was taken down by the Fine Brothers. YouTube allows a VERY FEW top creators to takedown a video themselves, a tool that is supposed to be used purely for intellectual property violations. But the Fines used it improperly and, anyway, everyone knows that using power to stifle criticism on the internet is just going to get you criticized more.

I have no idea what’s going on with the font here…sorry.

There have also been several high profile cases of the Fines calling out other creators for copying their format. That goes all the way from small YouTube channels to Ellen and BuzzFeed.

Now, all culture is built on copying, but the line between when I’m filming someone reacting to something and doing a point-by-point rip-off of the “React” series is blurry. But even if I did do a point-by-point rip-off of the “React” series, that wouldn’t be illegal. It’s very difficult to patent a content format. There’s a pretty wide-ranging (and probably correct) feeling that the Fines feel a little too much ownership over the genre of “people react to things” videos, but that’s a thing that happens to people who get really involved in content. It’s not correct, but it’s understandable.

All of this came to a head this week when the Fine Brothers announced “React World” an opportunity for other people to license the “React” brand (including all assets like logos, transitions, design, as well as marketing helped along by the brothers) in exchange for some percent of the revenue generated by content using the license. Basically, they wanted to franchise their show out to other people in other places and other languages. This is a very normal thing for media companies to do, and I don’t think anyone would have had a problem with it if not for three things.

  1. The Fines were already viscerally hated by a certain kind of person who had decided that they’re money-grubbing and power-hungry. A small part of this (it’s clear if you look at YouTube comments) was fueled by anti-semitism. Activation energy is extremely important in things like this, and it’s worth considering where that energy (and the ease with which people accepted the narrative) came from. But a larger part of the bandwagon was built by legitimate frustration at how the Fines had previously handled criticism (poorly) and exerted power over other’s intellectual property.
  2. The Fines attempted to trademark the word “React” for use in online video. I assume they got some bad legal advice because this would be a VERY difficult trademark to defend in court.
  3. They already had a history of occasionally (though the cases have been blown out of proportion) trying to control other people’s intellectual property.
The cause of all the hubbub

From the beginning, the Fines maintained that they would not be using their new trademark to take down videos from other creators, but the people who had already made up their minds weren’t going to trust that, especially when they had in fact taken down videos improperly before.

The assumption was that, since the Fine Brothers now had a trademark on the word “React,” their new licensing system would be set up to force anyone who used the word “React” in a video title (or had a person reacting to something in a video) to pay them a 30% license. This is ludicrous, of course, and was exacerbated by a huge amount of misunderstanding about what the word “trademark” means.

The negative comments said things like, “The Fine Brothers are copyrighting the react format!” which, if you know anything about intellectual property, makes no sense. But let’s be honest, no one knows anything about intellectual property. I certainly wouldn’t if I didn’t have to (though my company did produce a course teaching it if you want to learn.)

The Fine Brothers discussed how they weren’t trying to police reaction videos, but only content that used “all of the elements” of the React brand. Now, what “all of the elements” were was and remains unclear, but the naysayers heard that as “whatever we decide.” From there, the Fine’s opponents extended the narrative that they were trying to squash competition and stifle creativity.

The rhetoric was toxic, and the feeling that people were banding together to take on some evil monolithic media company seemed pervasive. From my perspective, Fine Brothers Entertainment is a small business with real risks of going under and people losing their jobs. But for many the difference between a company with 50 people and a company with 50,000 is difficult to imagine.

The most impactful messages rose to the top not only on Reddit, but in YouTube comments. The conversation spread socially and the Fines uploaded a truly disastrous (and fairly condescending) update video about how no one understood what they were trying to do (which, to be fair, was accurate). At that point, tens of thousands of people were unsubscribing per hour.

Yikes

After another day of this, the brothers announced here on Medium that they would cease all take-down claims, rescind all of their trademarks, and cancel their licensing program. A lawyer who had been an outspoken critic of the Fine Brothers trademark confirmed that the Fines had sent him proof that they’d rescinded the trademarks.

A response to the trademarks being rescinded

And with that, it’s all over…except that the haters continue to talk about how evil the Fines are, and a lot of people appear to remain convinced that a show they used to enjoy has now somehow been tarnished.

Honestly, from my perspective, this whole thing has been a little disgusting. I don’t love how the Fine Brothers handled things (though they last bit, where they apologized in the face of people who had become full-time haters and called attention to the potential problems with their licensing plan was pretty impressive). But I really hate how the internet conducts itself in situations like this. The entire “controversy” was based on what people thought the Fine Brothers would do, not what they did, and that’s pretty terrifying.

This was intentionally miscommunicated by people who hate the Fines and people ate it up. Mix it in with the not-uncommon feeling that, well, the Fine Brothers are the type of people who do tend to be money-grubbing and power-hungry…they look like…seem like…that sort of person who gathers money without really deserving it and you have a bit of fuel on this fire that just makes it that much more skeezy.

There certainly were people with legitimate concerns and complaints, and maybe those things would never have been addressed without an angry mob, but the quality of the conversation had little to do with real concerns about intellectual property and much more to do with how to most cleverly insult people.

There are a lot of lessons in this, but for me (a professional YouTube creator) it’s a warning: On the internet, there’s always a mob waiting to happen. This wonderful life that I’ve been granted by luck and work and passion? That mob can take it all away, and they’ll absolutely love doing it.

Another reaction in the same thread

*Correction — An earlier version of this article said that the Fine Brothers had registered the trademark for the use of “React” in YouTube videos. In fact, they had only applied for that trademark. They cancelled that application and rescinded others for “Kids React,” “Elders React,” and etc.