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Rage Against the Machinima

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Shortly after the controversy blew up on Reddit, L.A. Weekly reached Vacas via Skype.

"It was really amazing to see how many people took the time to support me after I made that video," Vacas said, reflecting on the fallout. "It just shows how much the community can do when they all group together and help others out."

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


Machinima has borne the brunt of the public criticism, but complaints about unfair YouTube contracts also are heard throughout the industry. No one is immune, not even YouTube's biggest star.

On December 10, Ray William Johnson, whose channel boasts more than 6 million subscribers — more than any other on YouTube — couldn't keep quiet any longer. A little after 7 p.m., he fired off a pair of tweets heard 'round the world.

"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.

The tweet was followed by another, two minutes later: "@MakerStudios holding a YouTuber's AdSense account hostage after you promised to sign it back over is bad for your business."

The public spat was particularly ironic since 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 brief stint on MadTV before starting the network with fellow YouTube stars Danny Diamond (her fiancé, Danny Zappin) and Thebdonski (her brother, Ben Donovan).

The trio has said that it sees Maker as the United Artists of YouTube — akin to the studio founded by Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and other Hollywood stars in defiance of the controlling studio system. Zappin is fond of telling the story of how Maker helped move YouTube star ShayCarl and his family to Southern California from Idaho so he could be part of their fledgling company.

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 pretty much daily.

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

After Johnson's video was uploaded to the site, a representative for Maker released a statement to the website New Media Rockstars, insisting that Johnson was still part of the Maker network 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 not because of ratings but because Maker had suddenly demanded an ownership stake in his company.

After that, both sides went quiet for a little while. Until, that is, December, when Johnson issued those angry tweets — and then explained in an email to L.A. Weekly and other outlets why he finally 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. "At the end of the day, YouTube-based networks are built around exploiting YouTube channels for profit."

Maker, he says, wanted 40 percent of his channel's revenue after production costs, and half of the show's intellectual property in perpetuity.

"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.

He wasn't biting.

"Negotiations quickly became a bizarre pissing contest between the heads at Maker Studios and myself. I wouldn't hand over my intellectual property, and they wouldn't stop aggressively trying to get me to sign it over to them," he wrote.

The company struck back. According to Johnson, the network shut down production on his album, which had been under way for eight months at Maker's Culver City studio, and, a day later, halted production on his 4-year-old show.

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Tessa Stuart
Contact: Tessa Stuart