The Fine Bros Trademark Saga is a Joyful Parable for Digital Content Creators

The internet hated these fucking guys. Then they did the right thing and everyone moved on.

At the end of January, YouTube megastars The Fine Bros announced a plan to expand their reaction video empire by releasing exclusive producer tools for video makers who wanted to contribute to their expanding content empire. It was an original, if vaguely defined, business initiative pitched to the world with unlimited enthusiasm and very few details. The internet read between the lines and didn’t appreciate what it found. The Fine Bros were attempting to claim ownership of the concept of “reacting,” a trademark that somehow passed without dissent. Two million subscribers abandoned the Fine Bros. Ironically, none of them were sued for reacting.

The scandal — if we can call it that — wouldn’t have been so notable if the Fine Bros’ public explanation hadn’t been embarrassingly mismanaged. The first and second round of public apologies came off as The Fine Bros attacking their followers for not understanding the principals of copyright law in the United States — going so far as to explain that without such protections we wouldn’t have chain restaurants or the old cotton gin or whatever. This was a horseshit argument. While Fine Bros Entertainment has done a massive chunk of content in the reaction space — hundreds of massively popular videos of children reacting to things from other decades or adults eating/watching/experiencing something new — they never created something new. The Fine Bros never invented a Big Mac or a new way to make a cotton t-shirt.

In the end, the team at Fine Bros followed in that great American tradition of doing what is right after exhausting all other options. They bailed on their trademark and Reaction World Hub was cancelled. Then a month passed.

Now what?

They’re back to 13.7 million subscribers and churning out major videos at least every two days.

The inherent blessing in the media they create is that no one is looking to the Fine Bros for introspection. No one is looking to the Fine Bros to take a surprising new creative turn. No one is looking to the Fine Bros to do anything but show dumb kids being shocked by whatever. They are good at this and they are back at it. It’s pretty easy to forget what happened. YouTube as a medium doesn’t seem to have a long memory, which makes sense because it doesn’t have a long history.

There is also the sense among many YouTube creators’ fans that the Fine Bros were just ahead of the curve. Reaction World Hub could have provided some would-be creators with a very interesting platform for self-promotion if it hadn’t felt like an assault on a media ecosystem. Proprietary software would have been great, but the asterisk at the end of the sentence was just too big and the print at the bottom of the page was just too fine. It smelled of evil.

But the Fine Bros aren’t evil.

Trying to find someone with something bad to say about Benny and Rafi Fine is genuinely difficult offline. From all accounts, they are delightful and upstanding dudes — both personally and professionally — with brilliant minds for this type of endeavor and a genuine desire to support others. What seems likely is that they tried to build a brand for themselves without recognizing that YouTube is, on some level, a zero-sum game. The promised to respect other people’s reaction videos, but that’s not how algorithms work, as some YouTubers noticed.

There’s nothing in the Fine Bros handling of the internet’s reaction to their trademarking “reaction” to suggest they are actively bad dudes. They took a hit, apologized and recovered. It’s actually heartening that a scandal can come and go so quickly online. The internet hated the Fine Bros for a week then moved on. Everything worked out. That’s an important lesson to creators who want to do something big. Don’t be evil, sure, but also don’t be tentative. The internet may not forget as such, but it does forgive.