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Info for Volunteer Captioners

If you are looking to be a volunteer captioner (or, if you prefer, a crowd sourced captioning contributor), there is some useful information to know:

Volunteers have had the satisfaction of knowing they are helping to make videos accessible that otherwise might not be. In addition, some volunteers have turned their volunteerism into a career, becoming professional captioners.

I. Legality of Captioning Someone Else's Video
II. Where Can I Volunteer to Caption?

Is It Legal to Caption YouTube Videos You Don't Own?

(Reprinted with permission of Captions for YouTube).

Many people wonder, is it legal to caption YouTube videos that you don't own? And is it even possible to do so? While you cannot add captions directly to a YouTube video that you don't own, you can embed a YouTube video on your site and add a plugin to display captions for the video.
But what is the legality of doing so? YouTube has become an incredible resource for educators, journalists, and bloggers (among others). The sheer number of videos makes it impossible to ignore the valuable content available. Educators can find entertaining, instructional videos on dozens of topics that help make their lessons more engaging to students. The only issue is that often (and particularly in education), closed captions are required for accessibility purposes. Many schools worry about the legality of adding captions to videos that do not belong to them.
Fair use dictates the legality of captioning copyrighted material. Fair use is a set of exceptions that allows for the evolution and exchange of ideas without detracting from the value or potential of the original work.

Four Factors for Determining Fair Use

There are four factors that courts take into consideration when they determine fair use of copyrighted material. While all four are considered in every decision, the greatest weight is given to the "transformative" nature of the use (the first factor listed below).
1. Purpose and Character
  • This is the factor that courts usually focus on for determining fair use. If you can prove that your use is "transformative" and adds new meaning to the content, the Purpose and Character factor is your best defense for using copyrighted material.
  • Example: If you are a journalist, you might repurpose a music video to report on the objectification of women in rap culture. In this case, your use of this video transforms its intent from entertainment to education.
  • How This Factor Applies to Video Captions: Adding captions to a video transforms any work to make it accessible and educational. This creates new meaning beyond the intent of the original work.
2. Nature of the Copyrighted Work
  • This factor splits work into two sectors: factual and creative. Factual content is based on accepted truths, and copyright "does not extend to ideas, systems, or factual information conveyed in a work." Copyright does, however, protect the creativity authors have used to express themselves.
  • How This Factor Applies to Video Captions: Adding captions to factual work puts you on safer ground, and in this case the Nature of the Copyrighted Work factor may provide some additional protection. You should be more careful when captioning creative work.
3. Amount and Substantiality
  • This factor puts you on safer ground if you are borrowing small clips or pieces from the larger copyrighted work. Be careful, though – if the part you use conveys the "heart" of the work, this factor won't help you.
  • How This Factor Applies to Video Captions: Adding captions to YouTube videos doesn't require republishing of the content, so this factor doesn't really apply.
4. Effect on Work's Value
  • This factor takes into account whether or not your use of the content will harm the copyright owner's ability to profit from their original work.
  • How This Factor Applies to Video Captions: On YouTube, you must look at video monetization to determine this factor. Ads should still stream even on embedded videos, so embedding a video on your site with captions should not hurt the earning potential. In fact, you would even be adding to their revenue by giving them more views! The only case in which this would hurt the copyright owner's earning potential is if a captioned version of the video already exists for purchase.

Legal Exemption for Captioning Educational Content

If you are an educator, you're in luck! According to Section 107 of American copyright law, there is a legal exemption from copyright infringement for teaching. This means that if you're using a public YouTube video for teaching, you can legally add captions to it!

Precautions to Take Before Captioning Videos You Don't Own

  • It is always best to first get in contact with the YouTube channel owner and request that they caption the video themselves. Note that if you find YouTube videos that should legally be captioned but are not, you can report them to YouTube.
  • Make sure you only transcribe or caption public YouTube videos! Captioning unlisted videos is dangerous territory, since they were never intended for public access.
  • Don't assume that just because your use is non-profit, it's fair! The question is not whether your organization is non-profit, but whether you are limiting the profit of the copyright holder.
  • Giving credit to the copyright owner, or using a disclaimer, does not make it fair use!

So, Is It Legal or Not?

Given the four factors above, as well as the legal exemption for teaching, we believe that fair use provides legal protection for captioning YouTube videos that you do not own. Captions make any video transformative, accessible, and educational; further, they do not have any adverse impact on the original work, nor do they detract from the owner's earning potential.
Note that captioning videos is a gray area in copyright law. This article is intended for informational purposes and should not be treated as legal advice. Read Third Party Captioning and Copyright by Blake E. Reid for a complete analysis of how copyright law impacts third party captioning, and consider watching the video at the bottom of this post for examples of how video content is examined under fair use. We have added an interactive transcript to the video for accessibility purposes.
Where Can I Volunteer?

Opportunities for volunteer captioners to help are expanding. Volunteers can:

1. Join,  which has long had volunteers helping to caption all sorts of videos.  Amara has its own video player which embeds the YouTube video so you can caption it using Amara's tools. Amara has a community called Captions Requested where you can find web series episodes that need captioning.
2. Help with the subreddit for transcribing videos, Or the newer but fast growing subreddit Caption Please, at
3. Join the Captioning Project, which focuses on historic videos,
4. Contribute captions to YouTube channels that utilize the crowd sourced captioning feature.
5. Reach out to producers of web TV programs and offer to help caption the videos.

Captioned Web TV needs volunteers to caption web series, particularly older web series that the producers have no interest in going back and captioning. Contact Captioned Web TV via Twitter at @captionedwebtv, message us on Facebook at, or message us via Tumblr at

1 comment:

  1. The facebook group Community Access (Captions, Transcripts, Image Descriptions) also captions video, though transcripts with visual description are more common. Many captioning requests have gone unfulfilled, so more volunteers would be helpful.