After negotiations faltered, Johnson began recording episodes first at his apartment, and later at Papertown Studios in L.A. But two months after leaving Maker Studios, he alleges, the company still hasn't turned his AdSense account back over to him.
In the email he provided to the Weekly and other media outlets, Johnson didn't just throw down about his contract. He got personal.
Johnson wrote 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.) He didn't know about Zappin's conviction before he signed with Maker, Johnson wrote, 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 on the status of Johnson's AdSense account. And since his first email, Johnson has declined to provide any additional information. Instead, a representative for the star emailed to say, "He has been advised by his attorney to not give any more interviews until the issue with Maker has been resolved."
It's tempting to write off each contract dispute as just that — an individual incident. But 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 much shorter — only about a week. Studios churned out one major movie every week, plus a few B films, to meet the demand.
"The studios were run on a factory basis. They had to have total control of their talent in order to assign them to projects, in order to make all of these films to keep their theaters filled," Balio says. "They could not negotiate with talent each time they decided to make a motion picture."
They met this challenge by adopting the "option" contract. A new star might be signed for a fixed term (typically seven years). Each year, the studio had the option to renew the contract — but the actors were unable to break it during its duration.
"It was bondage," Balio says. "It changed over time, but basically, when a performer signed an option contract, he or she was bound to the studio because no other major studio would hire that performer if he or she broke their option contract."
Beginning in the 1950s, though, the industry underwent a transformation. It moved away from producing as many films as possible and toward producing the best films possible.
That change was the result of two things, Balio says: the rise of television and the Paramount antitrust suit. The judgment in that case declared that studios could no longer own the theaters that showed their movies. The result was, in some ways, a transformation similar to the one YouTube is hoping for: a transition from short, low-budget films toward longer, professionally made content.
That was the idea behind YouTube's $100 million investment in 100 original-content channels, which included channels produced by Maker and Machinima, made in October 2011. In November 2012, YouTube doubled down on that bet, reinvesting in the top-performing 30 to 40 percent of those channels.
In November, YouTube also opened a production facility in Howard Hughes' former airplane hangar in Playa Vista, available to "partners" who want to up their game. YouTube's redesign, unveiled in December, also was a step in that direction. It is more about channels, less about individual videos, with the idea that YouTube will become a destination rather than a repository for video content.
David Lisi is an attorney with DLA Piper in Silicon Valley. He has worked on both sides of these contract disputes — on behalf of both talent (YouTube stars) and distributors (their networks).
Part of the problem, he says, is that YouTube networks initially adopted the language and practices of the entertainment industry, but technology is evolving quickly, and the law is struggling to keep up with it.