In what we very much hope launches a “race to the top” to protect online fair use, today YouTube announced a new program to help users fight back against outrageous copyright threats. The company has created a ‘Fair Use Protection’ program that will cover legal costs of users who, in the company’s view, have been unfairly targeted for takedown.

We have criticized YouTube in the past for not doing enough to protect fair use on its service, including silencing videos based on vague “contractual obligations” and failing to fix the many problems with its Content ID program. However, when the company takes positive steps to protect its users, we take notice.

Google describes the program on its blog, but here are the basic details: When the company notices that a video targeted for takedown is clearly a lawful fair use, it may choose to offer the user the option of enrolling their video into the program. If the user decides to join, the video will stay up in the United States and, if the rightsholder sues, YouTube will provide assistance of up to $1 million dollars in legal fees.

YouTube has started the program off with four videos that the company believes represent fair use. You can watch them here.

While we would like the program to do a little bit more—for example, given that the main criteria is that a video must be clearly lawful we’d like YouTube to provide any user that meet that criteria the option of enrolling their video into the program, rather than hand-selecting which ones gets to participate—we think this is a solid and unprecedented step forward in protecting fair use on the site.

We commend YouTube for standing up for its users, and we hope the program will inspire other service providers on the web to follow its lead.

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