Luke Winkie
Tuesday February 9th, 2016

The man behind the FreeDawkins YouTube channel works incredibly hard. Over the past 24 hours alone he’s uploaded 12 videos: including full highlights from  Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach Lavine's game against the Lakers, a Wiggins/Bryant duel from the same meeting, and all 27 of Devin Booker’s points against the Raptors. On his other channel, VintageDawkins, he has freshly uploaded clips from a 2012 Curry/Leonard clash, and a near triple-double from Kevin Durant in 2014. Old games and new games, superstars and role-players, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Orlando Magic, it doesn’t matter. Every day he tirelessly documents the league, regardless of the suspect legality.

FreeDawkins is not alone. Over the past few years YouTube has been inundated with channels focusing on the seasonal industry of NBA highlights. Ximo PiertoNBA Daily RecapGoFactory, the list goes on and on. They have no contractual connection to the league, but in the era of democratized streaming it’s not hard for someone to cut together an eight minute package from the comfort of their own home. It’s funny to think only a couple years ago we settled for grainy, ravioli-sized clips of archive footage, and now you can literally find a full version of, say, game one of the 2001 Finals at the click of a button.

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“In October 2008 I started to do basketball mixes, where you cut together highlights of one player and add music, and people actually liked those videos,” said someone who runs one of these NBA channels and who prefers to stay anonymous. “I was part of a mixmaking group called Hoops4Life, but then mixmaking died. I had a lot of channels. But the NBA people don’t like me who do these things for free and take their views. So they blocked a lot my channels and keep blocking today.”

FreeDawkins, probably the largest and most well-known basketball highlights channel, earns something between $69,000 and $1.1 million a year. That’s obviously a huge range, due to YouTube’s general obfuscation of how much their creators are actually making, but even at the lowest estimation it’s still plenty of money to make a living. Factor in the $5,200 to $83,700 he’s pulling from VintageDawkins, and it’s clear that this is more than just a hobby.

The people who run these channels don’t run from the dubious waters they’re operating in. Under every practically every single one of these videos there’s a disclaimer that states “all clips property of the NBA. No copyright infringement is intended, all videos are edited to follow the "Free Use" guideline of YouTube.” Is that accurate? Who knows, it’s tied up in a ton of copyright and free speech law that could be interpreted in dozens of different ways, but nothing can necessarily excuse the fact that we’re talking about the NBA’s product with someone else’s watermark in the bottom left corner.

“I admit it,” says the anonymous channel owner, referring to the borderline legal status. “Yeah, like I said before, NBA took a lot of my channels down. But I keep doing this thing, my new channels gets 10 to 20 thousand subscribers in three to four days! That's crazy! People support my work, my content and that is really awesome.“

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It seems like the NBA could shutter all these channels pretty easily if they wanted. Their case is ironclad; people outside the Association using its telecasts for profit is strictly prohibited, that’s not exactly in the fine print. But remarkably, the Silver regime has been pretty progressive on the topic. At last year’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Silver was asked about the massive amount of unregulated content on YouTube.

“We’re incredibly protective of our live game rights,” said Silver. “But for the most part, highlights are marketing.”

It’s not quite an endorsement, but it’s far more democratic than, say, the NFL’s hard-nosed policy that lead to the Twitter suspension of reputable publications like Deadspin and SB Nation over copyrighted highlights. Honestly, I think the NBA’s more laissez-faire approach needs to be applauded. It’s the 21st century. Fighting piracy, especially in its least egregious forms, is a lost cause. The music and film industries gave up the ghost and embraced the consumer liberty of Spotify and Netflix, maybe the NBA is doing the smart thing by turning a (mostly) blind eye.

“People need these channels,” says the anonymous owner. “Sometimes people get home after work and don't want to watch full games, they need their favorite player’s performance video. So they search it on YouTube and they find my videos. Maybe they don't like NBA channel's content and prefer full highlights. I'm okay with that, I enjoy editing, it's my life. I like doing this for people, and when I get support from them it motivates me even more.”

Personally? I’m thrilled that these channels exist. Yeah it makes me a little queasy that people are making auxiliary profits from trademarks that don’t belong to them, but still, the only thing that separates FreeDawkins from ESPN is a licensing deal. These people love basketball, and they’re building a massive archive for the sport with each and every game. Years from now I’m going to remember some random Jamal Crawford run, and I’ll be able to pull it up on my computer in about five seconds. What a great moment to be a fan! We know deep down that we shouldn’t feel guilty for watching transcendent basketball on YouTube, and right now, it seems like the NBA is inclined to agree.

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