How Two of YouTube’s Biggest Stars Became Its Biggest Villains Overnight

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The Fine Brothers.

Benny and Rafi Fine, the 30-something YouTube stars known as the Fine Bros., have built much of their fame and success on videos of kids reacting to things. They updated the successful formula of Kids Say the Darndest Things for the YouTube generation and branded it as their own, and it was a huge hit. And why not? Videos of kids reacting to things appeals to two of the most important demographics online: kids themselves, and the all-powerful “Facebook moms,” the most prolific and reliable social sharers. The Fines and “Kids React” were two of YouTube’s most beloved brands.

But this week, they found themselves at the center of a complex and murky online controversy when they tried to take the not-so-secret sauce that earned them nearly 20 million viewers across two popular channels — the “React” formula — and franchise it out to other video creators. They trademarked “React,” announced a brand bible for reaction videos, and offered revenue sharing and avenues for other people’s reaction videos to get traffic. Basically, they acted like a company instead of part of YouTube’s creative community. And over the weekend and into Monday, they were pilloried for it across YouTube and Reddit by people who feared the Fines would take down competing videos to protect their new “React World” brand.

On Monday night, with their subscriber numbers dropping, the Fines realized the project as they’d envisioned it probably couldn’t be salvaged. They posted an apology on Medium and agreed to rescind their trademarks, cancel React World, and release all their past claims through YouTube’s Content ID copyright enforcement system.

How did we get here? How did the Fines go from two Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn who “didn’t know anybody” to YouTube’s favorite stars, and now to the internet’s favorite pariahs of the moment?

The Fines gave the definitive interview about their early YouTube career two years ago on Ear Biscuits, a podcast by fellow YouTube personalities Rhett and Link.

The whole upbringing was interesting because we grew up Orthodox Jews all the way until we were teenagers,” Benny said.

But the story before that, just quickly,” Rafi cut in, “is that both of our parents grew up on the West Coast. Jewish families, Jewish history, everything. Nobody Orthodox. They were big hippies, and our father was really into, like, LSD.”

The brothers spin a tale of their parents’ decision to become Orthodox Jews — but remain undercover hippies — after a trip to Israel. The Fines’ parents moved to Brooklyn in the early ‘80s, and Benny and Rafi were born just as their father had decided to go “all in” and become a rabbi.

Long story short, we were raised very religious, but things they were doing were very unorthodox.”

Growing up in the 1990s, Benny was obsessed with his tape recorder, conducting interviews and making his own radio shows. The brothers started recording comedy sketches as adolescents, when they got their first video camera. Benny, who’s two years older, roped in the younger Rafi to produce their videos with him. Their early efforts included hour-long stories starring their action figures.

Their first online videos came out in late 2004, according to a Bloomberg profile. Despite the early web’s lack of any centralized platform to watch videos, the Fines claimed some modest success. “Their shows attracted hundreds, then thousands, of viewers, and they developed a stable of serialized shows,” Bloomberg reported.

The early efforts included a 12-episode mock reality-TV show called ‘Garage Sale,’ which featured various items from the brothers’ garage pleading not to be sold. Viewers would vote each week, and the loser would be listed on EBay — and was usually bought by a fan of the show.”

And then, in 2005, came YouTube. The Fines entered the fledgling YouTube community as low-paid video producers for other companies, but kept making their own videos on the side. They moved from New York to L.A., and held down day jobs while they built their YouTube following. Benny worked as a ride operator at Disney parks — making “absolute shit” for pay — to make ends meet.

The Fines told Rhett and Link that they didn’t even move into separate apartments until almost a decade into their mutual entertainment career, because they just didn’t have time — “every waking moment is dedicated to creating content.”

The Fines’ big break arrived in 2009,  when they joined up with a new venture called Maker Studios, a collaboration between some of the top YouTube stars of the time, including Philip DeFranco and Shane Dawson.

We always thought we would never become some bigger thing on YouTube. We always wanted to work for like, a CollegeHumor,” Benny said.

So they talked to Dawson about what they could do with Maker, and “within two months, we were the head of production and head of creative,” writing and producing for many of the studio’s high-profile channels.

Maker Studios would go on to expand into an enormous multi-channel network, home to some of the most popular YouTubers. Maker sold out to Disney in 2014, for more than $500 million. Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg, the wacky video gamer who’s literally the most popular thing on YouTube, just launched his own gaming network within Maker. He made a reported $12 million last year.

But Maker did all of that without the Fine Bros., who left in 2010 after things at the studio “stopped matching up with what we believed in,” the brothers explained. They wanted to be part of a “bunch of united artists growing and promoting people together,” not just “a content business.” Late that year, they cashed in their savings and struck out on their own as full-time YouTubers.

The Fines would go on to have their own success, albeit not quite on PewDiePie’s level. They’d had some viral hits during their pre-Maker days, notably a long-running series spoofing the TV show Lost, and a video where they recited 100 movie spoilers in five minutes. The “Spoiler Alert” was a formula worth at least a couple million views, and it’s one they’ve reused successfully throughout their YouTube career, spoiling movies, TV shows, and video games.

But it wasn’t until after they left Maker that they hit on their biggest winner: reaction videos. The first in the series, “Kids React to Viral Videos #1,” came out in October of 2010, and currently has more than 5 million views.

It was the start of a small empire: Kids reacted to viral videos, YouTube stars, and Lady Gaga. They reacted to Star Wars. They reacted to the short-lived and dumb “planking trend.” And soon, kids became teens, and they were reacting, too. Every reaction video was racking up hundreds of thousands of views, and the Fines kept finding new things to do with the format. In mid-2012, they launched Seniors React — now called Elders React.

And after highlighting the disconnect between old people and modern technology and pop culture, it only made sense to show how mystified kids are by outdated technology. The best Kids React videos are the ones where kids try to figure out how to operate Walkmen, rotary phones, and original Game Boys. These segments are basically internet crack, hitting all the same “remember the ‘90s?” notes that make BuzzFeed’s millennial nostalgia listicles so successful.

Which brings us to the present day: The Fines’ React videos are so popular that they’ve been moved to their own separate channel with more than 5 million subscribers. The Fine Bros. empire has been formalized as a company — a natural and necessary step when you’ve got all that revenue — with more than 50 employees. They keep coming up with new ways to mine the React concept for content — most recently, React Gaming.

And despite their leaving Maker because they didn’t want to be part of a monolithic content company, there was this month’s controversial, explosive React World announcement. The Fines proposed to farm out the business of finding new reactors and new things for them to react to, bringing every video in the format under their own trademarked umbrella.

Not being a mega corp and unable to go global ourselves, we have decided to give access to all these series to the world to create that collaboration together,” the Fines wrote on Medium when they announced the project.

That collaboration, it should be noted, would have resulted in Fine Bros. Entertainment raking in “20 percent of all ad revenue, and 30 percent of all brand deals” from any licensed spinoff React channels.

There was also a format bible, including graphical elements to use “so everyone watching knows we are all in this together.”

But everyone wasn’t in it together. Consolidating a brand and protecting the value of a trademark necessarily means forcing out competition, taking down videos that could be confused for the Fines’ most recognizable product but don’t give the Fines a cut of the revenue, and that worried other YouTubers. Especially because takedowns had reportedly already started to happen.

On Reddit, the Daily Dot noted, “people are beginning to dredge up examples of the Fine Bros. allegedly shutting down videos that shared similarities with their brand. One such video, titled ‘Seniors React,’ was posted before the Fine Bros.’ first Elders React video in 2012, but has since been removed from YouTube.”

Another YouTuber claimed his video had been taken down by the Fines after getting just eight views.

The Fines quickly moved into damage-control mode over the video takedowns, some of which appeared to be unintentional. They promised in the YouTube description on an update video Sunday that they would work to restore the mistakenly removed videos in the coming week. Now, with the cancellation of React World, they’ve dropped all their Content ID takedown claims.

The concerns people have about React World are understandable, and that people see a link between that and our past video takedowns,” they wrote Monday, “but those were mistakes from an earlier time.”

The Fine Bros. trademark on “React” was probably the biggest point of contention in the YouTube community, for obvious reasons: “Trademark” brings to mind the threat of legal action, of corporate overlords deleting the videos of tiny individual creators. But the legal system actually has very little to do with the daily realities of YouTube, where video takedowns can be notoriously like a sentence without a trial.

YouTubers complain that the site’s automated Content ID system is extremely easy to abuse, and hard to challenge once the machines have made their ruling. A mistake can take days or weeks to fix, and you can be without your video or your entire channel during that time. For those who depend on YouTube ad revenue, it’s especially terrifying. As popular YouTube ranter I Hate Everything put it, the system “is a joke!”

So, even if the Fines nobly intended to expand the universe of React videos — and profit in doing so — the fear is that they would end up monopolizing the entire concept of “people reacting to things” on YouTube.

These guys didn’t come up with the idea of filming funny reactions from kids. And they certainly don’t own an entire genre of YouTube videos. It wasn’t their idea, and it’s not theirs to own or police,” wrote “video game attorney” Ryan Morrison, who planned to file a legal challenge to the Fines’ “React” trademark.

He won’t have to file it now. The trademark and React World are dead. And that’s a shame, because it was an interesting idea that suffered from tone-deaf execution.

As Hank Green, one half of YouTube’s Vlogbrothers, put it earlier this week, “this could actually be a very cool project if it could be divorced from the idea of two very powerful creators attempting to control a very popular YouTube video format. Franchising one of YouTube’s biggest shows? Yeah, I’d love to see how that goes.”

A lot of YouTubers probably would have loved it, too, if it hadn’t seemed so much like a legal threat to them. The Fines exist in a middle ground between small-time solo creators and massive Maker Studios. Their company has around 50 employees to support, which means they’re probably past the point where “two guys making videos” is a viable business model. There are other YouTubers in that same territory, and they’re not all going to be bought by Disney for half a billion bucks. There has to be a way forward for a small business on YouTube, not a “mega corp,” as the Fines put it. And the Fines may have found it in the franchise model.

Two guys making videos” can’t support a growing company, but a whole bunch of guys making videos, paying a small percentage in exchange for traffic and branding? There’s probably something there.

It seems very likely that a YouTube icon will blaze that trail in the next year or two, but it probably won’t be a Fine Brother.